Letting go by saying sorry

Vicky Aldous reflects on the upcoming holidays and the custom of asking for forgiveness.

Blowing the shofar at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Blowing the shofar at the Western Wall before Rosh Hashana
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
TNS- In Judaism, it’s not enough to ask God for forgiveness of sins.
Instead, people who have wronged others are encouraged to analyze their hurtful behavior, adopt a repentant attitude and ask those they’ve harmed to forgive them.
“If I’ve hurt someone’s feelings I must go to that person and say to them, ‘I ask for your forgiveness,’” says Rabbi David Zaslow of Ashland, Oregon. “I can’t come to the synagogue and say, ‘Dear Lord, I really blew it with so-and-so. Please forgive me.’ God says, ‘Fine, but go to that person, not to me.’ So I think it’s a profound, beautiful thing in terms of Jewish religion that there is no forgiveness for a sin against another human being unless you obtain that forgiveness from that other person.”
As they prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days — which include Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in September — Jewish people will contemplate the wrongs they’ve committed and make plans to seek forgiveness.
“The High Holidays are a cleansing agent. Another metaphor is that it’s a reset button,” Zaslow explains.
Saying sorry is difficult for most people, but Zaslow says that’s natural.
“The Hebrew word asham gives us our word shame. If I feel guilty, I biologically want to run. I want to hide myself. In Judaism, we believe that God has planted within us the ability to overcome that shame. It is hard to say you’re sorry. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s what makes it worthwhile,” he says.
Facing and overcoming those instincts to hide gives us the opportunity to become better people, Zaslow says.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ It makes you a better person to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s why John McCain [the Arizona senator who died of cancer last week], not to make this political, is getting so much respect because he knew how to say he was sorry. He made mistakes along the way in his life. For a politician to be able to say you’re sorry is courageous, but the reality is it’s courageous for all of us,” Zaslow says.
A wide variety of religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, have traditions in which people are asked to face up to their sins, repent and seek forgiveness, he noted.
“It is natural to want to avoid it and it’s the purpose of good religion to ask you to face it,” Zaslow says.
Although no one is encouraging people to be rude or commit a crime, sin can actually have a purpose.
The opportunity to sin shows people have free will. Resisting temptation or overcoming shortcomings when we do make mistakes makes us stronger and gives us insight, Zaslow says.
He noted the best drug counselors are often recovering addicts because they understand the struggles of those fighting addiction.
In the Jewish tradition, people who have sinned, repented and sought forgiveness can serve as role models to others, Zaslow says.
Many Jewish beliefs and practices regarding sin and forgiveness sound like the 12-step program familiar to recovering addicts.
That’s because the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous were influenced by a variety of traditions and practices, including Judaism, Zaslow says.
Bill Wilson, a recovered alcoholic, and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith founded their 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. The concept has spread to help people struggling with everything from drug abuse to gambling to overeating.
The steps include taking an honest moral inventory of ourselves, making amends to those we’ve harmed, admitting when we are wrong, helping those in recovery and serving as role models.
Judaism has a 20-step process for repentance that includes acknowledging regrets and shame, giving up the particular sin, considering the consequences, apologizing to others, repairing the misdeed and turning others away from the same sin. Completing the steps readies people to become authentic teachers.
Repenting and seeking forgiveness helps people feel better, freeing them to become better human beings, Zaslow says.
On the flip side, forgiving others can also be beneficial, he says.
“In Judaism, you have no obligation to forgive somebody who’s harmed you who hasn’t asked for forgiveness. On the other hand, if you’re carrying a grudge year after year, it’s hurting you. So there has to be some way of releasing yourself from the prison of your own grudge,” Zaslow says.
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