On Yom Kippur, we ask God to wipe away our sins, as the prelude to restoring the level of closeness that we enjoyed with Him before we distanced ourselves by our actions.
But that request for forgiveness must be accompanied by sincere repentance and all that it entails: recognition of the wrongdoing, genuine regret, and a resolution to do better in the future. Rote breast-beating will not suffice. Repeated recitations of the Al Het [confessions of sin] may be some improvement over politicians’ vague “If my words or actions have given offense, I’m sorry,” but is hardly adequate.
Besides seeking God’s forgiveness, we seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur from all those we have wronged. Without making a genuine effort to secure the forgiveness of those we have hurt, there can be no Divine forgiveness for those sins either.
Asking forgiveness of others – most frequently those closest to us and to whom we bear the greatest responsibility – is often harder than asking God for His forgiveness.
The process often calls into question our favorable self-image as good people. If we are good, how did we do so many rotten or irresponsible things to others? Recognizing the pain we have caused others, often unintentionally, can help us be more forgiving of those we think have wronged us, and more capable of restoring the previous relationship.
Seeking forgiveness requires putting ourselves in a position of vulnerability and neediness vis-à-vis the one whose forgiveness we seek. We instinctively resist acknowledging our neediness, whether it be on God or our fellow man.
Yet contemplating the ways both large and small, intentional and heedless, that we have hurt others is an excellent means of taking responsibility for our words and actions and taking stock of our spiritual state.
A few years ago, I received a call on the eve of Yom Kippur from someone about whom I had written that year. He had been reviewing the year and decided that perhaps he had not shown sufficient gratitude (he had). I was awed by the fact that a very busy person could have even recalled such a trivial event.
WE DO not approach Yom Kippur only as supplicants. We are also in the position to forgive others. In fact, our Sages teach that there is no better way to merit Divine forgiveness than to grant forgiveness to others: “All who forgo their natural reaction [to the wrongs done to them] will have all their sins overlooked (Yoma 23a).”
As we respond to others, so God responds to us. If we cannot forgive what has been done to us, why should be expect God to overlook all the ways that we have betrayed our relationship to Him? Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the late rosh yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, considered the greatest miracle of the Six Day War to be an act of forgiveness that took place in the basement of the yeshiva, which served as the neighborhood bomb shelter. Hundreds fled to the basement from Jordanian artillery fire. At one point, the building suffered a direct hit. Many feared the worse and began reciting Shema.
Suddenly, one voice carried over the din.
It was that of a woman who had been abandoned by her husband without a get. “My husband left me an aguna [a woman who is “chained” to her marriage] for 20 years.
I have suffered much. But I forgive him.
You, too, Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World], forgive the Jewish people for all we have done wrong,” she called out.
When relating this story, Reb Chaim would always add, “Her prayer saved us!” Forgiveness has the power not only to effect the cosmos, but to change the life of the beneficiary. A few months ago, the following story was told at a funeral in Jerusalem.
The deceased was born in Israel, but moved to America in his teens. He prospered there, and his home became the base for hundreds of Israeli Jews who attended Arachim Jewish-learning seminars while studying or traveling in the United States, and started on the road to greater religious observance. He hired a number of them to work in his large warehouse.
At the end of one year, he noticed that there was a considerable discrepancy between his receipts and his inventory. He realized that he was the victim of major theft, not just minor pilferage, and the perpetrator was almost certainly an employee.
He decided to sleep in his office above the warehouse. That night he heard the large metal doors of the warehouse swing open, and looked out the office window to see one of the managers drive a van up to the warehouse door and load some items within.
He did not call the police. The next day, he asked the manager what he had been doing in the warehouse the previous night. At first, the thief denied he had been there, but soon he broke down and tearfully confessed. He told the owner that he was under unbearable pressure to send money back to his former wife and children in Israel.
The owner urged him to keep strengthening himself religiously. And he told him that he would have to keep working for him, until he had paid off the full amount stolen. But then he added that he was giving the young man a raise so that he could pay off the debts and continue to send money back to Israel.
That act of unexpected goodness and generosity in the face of a serious breach of trust gave the manager the final push he needed to become a full ba’al teshuva [returning to God].
IN THE spirit of the High Holy Days, I’ve been watching a number of TED talks on the subject of forgiveness – some by professionals in the field of treating post-traumatic stress disorders, but most by people telling their own stories. The latter category includes a victim of parental abuse too horrible to describe and a prisoner serving a life sentence talking about meeting the sister of the man he murdered 30 years earlier.
Many of these testimonies proved quite inspiring, evidence of the resilience of the human spirit; the ability to deal with anger generated by those who have inflicted grievous pain played a crucial role.
Forgiveness has been the subject of recent scientific research, much of it contained in journalist Megan Feldman Bettencourt’s Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World (recently excerpted in Salon magazine).
Bettencourt begins anecdotally with the observations of burn specialist Dr. Dabney Ewin. Over many decades, Ewin studied the effects of hypnosis to suggest that severe burn victims forgive the responsible party. He found that the success of their skin grafts significantly improved.
Robert Enright, a professor of developmental psychology, ran controlled experiments on people in different forms of group therapy – drug rehabilitation, victims of domestic violence, and terminally ill cancer patients. He found that in every category, those whose therapy contained a component of forgiveness had markedly better outcomes for emotional and psychological functioning.
Dr. Frederic Luskin of Stanford’s Forgiveness Project discovered that dwelling on wrongs suffered releases chemicals associated with the fight-or-flight mechanism – adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine.
These chemicals impede rational thought and lead to increased feelings of helplessness, which in turn is associated with depression and anxiety.
A 2009 study in the journal of Psychology and Health showed that forgiveness therapy increased blood flow to the heart of cardiac patients, reducing both pain and the likelihood of sudden death.
Forgiveness does not mean acting as if nothing occurred or that the “perpetrator” should not be held accountable in any fashion – i.e., in a civil action for damages.
Rather it means a refusal to continue blaming the wrong or the wrongdoer for every negative aspect of one’s life or emotional state, as if that were immutable.
Even those who will not be spending Yom Kippur fasting and in prayer can benefit from taking advantage of the day to focus on forgiveness – both as the giver and as one in need of forgiveness from others.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.