August 23, 2013: Forgiveness (Ki Tavo)


The Talmud states: “the Day of Atonement does not effect atonement for transgressions between a person and her fellow until she appeases him.” Thus, now is the time designated by our tradition to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed; by Yom Kippur, it is too late. (Of course, it’s never too late: but if not now, when?)

Here are some thoughts and suggestions about forgiveness.

1. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily feel good, at least initially. Forgiveness can stir up old hurts, resentments, and shame, which is why we shy away from the process to begin with. It’s easier to simply avoid issues, to live with low-grade grudges. Maybe we’ve gotten used to a certain level of detachment with another person, and it’s not worth it to bring up old resentments. So why engage in the process of forgiveness—besides the fact that our tradition demands it? Forgiveness is short term pain for long term gain. Through forgiveness, we affirm that our relationship with the other person matters, and we acknowledge that it will endure.

2. Seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. It may be useful to seek forgiveness precisely from those who we feel owe us an apology. Almost always when hard feelings arise, both parties have hurt each other. It is exceedingly rare that only one party is fully responsible for the tension between them. If each one waits for the other, neither will approach, and alienation will persist.

3. When you seek forgiveness, try to be specific. It’s lovely to tell someone in a general way that you are sorry for anything you might have done to distress her, but it’s even better if you can recall a particular instance of misbehavior. That’s one reason why Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-zikaron, “the Day of Remembrance.” It’s important to remember past episodes if you want to atone for them. On the other hand, atonement, like all spiritual processes, need not be perfect, nor should it be perfect. Start somewhere, anywhere. If you can’t remember or are unaware of how you injured another, you could invite her to call to mind grievances she may still harbor against you.

4. And when someone seeks your forgiveness? In the words of Maimonides, “it is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not grant pardon. Rather, when the offender requests forgiveness one should forgive with a full heart and a generous spirit.” (Hilchot Teshuvot 2:10) Elsewhere, Maimonides writes that if a person refuses to forgive you, you must seek forgiveness a second time. If the person refuses to forgive you again, you must seek forgiveness a third time. If, after three times, the victim persists in her refusal to forgive, you are absolved, and the transgression now rests upon her. (Hilchot Teshuvot 2:9) Judaism, in contrast to classical Christianity, considers the granting of forgiveness a commandment, rather than an act of generosity that we perform out of good will.

The requirement to forgive raises some questions: what if we suspect the offender’s apology is insincere or we think it’s only words and he’s not about to change?** What if we still hurt? What if we are afraid of being hurt in the future? Here it is useful to distinguish between forgiving someone and trusting someone. We may be willing to forgive in the sense that we can let go of our anger and desire for retaliation for the past offense, but we are not yet ready to trust, in the sense that we will not place ourselves in the same position to be injured by him again. Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. This brings us to the fifth point:

5. Forgiveness is not a one-time event, but a process. As Sol Schimmel writes in Wounds Not Healed by Time, “forgiveness is multidimensional in that it includes feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. It is a process that unfolds over time, involving vacillation betweeen thoughts and feelings that are conducive to forgiving and thoughts and feelings that reignite resentment and hurt. It is simplisitc to think of a binary choice between either forgiving or not forgiving. Each of the dimensions of forgiveness or non-forgiveness, the emotional, the cognitive, and the behavioral, can vary and progress at different rates. Anger, hatred, compassion, and love are not all-or-nothing emotions.” (p. 46)

In other words, don’t think that just because you’ve formally or ritually granted or received forgiveness, everything’s fine, and you should go on as if nothing happened to begin with. Depending upon the nature and extent of the original offense, there will be continuing repercussions—though, hopefully, they will reduce over time, and old memories of hurt will be replaced by new ones of reconciliation.

6. Finally, be gentle with yourself. Seeking forgiveness requires the courage to revive old embarrassments and painful feelings. Both seeking and granting forgiveness entail empathy, that is, a willingness to view the situation from the other’s perspective. Forgiveness is an emotionally taxing process. Give yourself credit for the mere willingness to make yourself vulnerable.

Relationships are always works in progress. Forgiveness itself is a work in progress. We may be clumsy at asking for forgiveness; we may be clumsy at granting it. Occasionally, we might feel we’ve made matters worse. If your motives are genuinely motivated by humility and good will, you cannot fail. The joy in living comes from continual self-improvement. We will continue to hurt each other—because that’s what human beings do. Hopefully, we will continue to forgive each other as well, because to ask for forgiveness and to grant forgiveness are among the most ennobling and compassionate actions that we as humans can perform.

** Sometimes, we might want another to change in ways that are contrary to his nature or his values. In that case, forgiveness might mean accepting him for who he is, even though he disappoints us or does not live up to our expectations of him. In any case, we’re supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.