Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Forgiveness and self-love

If you are not to hold a grudge, what ought one to do?

Forgiveness is something you do for yourself (photo credit: TNS)
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself
(photo credit: TNS)
 Rabbi Akiva identifies a problematic verse as the most important one in the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). We understand the difficulty in showing others the same measure of thoughtfulness and kindness we habitually show ourselves. 
The difficulty does not end there, however. What does it mean to love oneself? 
Parashat Kedoshim contains a number of laws, but it is revealing to note what immediately precedes the admonition “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The beginning of the verse is Lo tikom v’lo titur (Do not take vengeance or hold a grudge against others).
If you are not to hold a grudge, what ought one to do? When someone commits an offense against you, the alternative to holding a grudge is forgiveness. We are all aware that forgiveness is, to say the least, a difficult task. The advice of the Talmud is not easy to follow: “Be of those who take an insult but do not give it. Hear their reproach but do not reply” (Gittin 36b). There may be offenses for which forgiveness is not possible. Yet we live increasingly in a society where forgiveness is not given for almost any offense, and words that one speaks can result in being publicly reviled or “canceled” with no apparent path to restoration.
This is not only ungenerous, but a narrow view of the purposes of forgiveness. Judaism has several words for forgiveness or absolution, and if we examine them we may learn something about the placement of “do not bear a grudge” next to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Richard Balkin, a professor at the University of Mississippi, recently published a book titled Practicing Forgiveness. Balkin discusses the actual practice of forgiveness – an outline of steps that enable one to reach the stage of forgiving. Along the way Balkin anatomizes three Jewish terms, kappara, selicha and mechila. 
• Kappara is a spiritual cleansing, familiar to readers through the name Yom Kippur. 
• Selicha is “a sincere willingness to abandon negative feelings toward an offender” with the aim of restoring the relationship.
•  Mechila refers to the forgiveness of a debt or obligation owed, is letting go of anger or resentment without expecting or trying to force a full reconciliation. 
For example, one “owes” the first mourner’s kaddish to one’s parents (the Hebrew name for the mourner’s kaddish is kaddish yatom, literally, the orphan’s kaddish). But if someone close to you dies and you wish to say kaddish for them, you may ask your parents if they would be mochel (as in mechila) on their right – would they surrender the right to the first kaddish so that you can say it for someone else even though the parents are still alive. In mechila, you are forgiving someone although it is within your right to remain angry. You have not necessarily resumed the relationship or changed the reality of what has been done. 
What is the purpose of such forgiveness? Return for a moment to the placement of “lo titur” next to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Forgiveness is a release of the burden in one’s own heart. Resentment is painful and difficult for the one who feels it. To hold a grudge, as has been said, is to swallow poison hoping the other person will die.
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is forgiving not only because it is good for the one who has hurt you, but because forgiving is an act of self-love. Deciding not to be consumed by the toxicity of anger and rancor is to treat oneself both wisely and lovingly.
The previous verse (v.17) tells us, “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart.” It is one of the very few places where the Torah commands emotion. But we can now understand that it does so for our own good, because hatred not only imperils community, but it embitters the life of the hater. One way of understanding the famous verse that follows is – love your neighbor, forgive your neighbor, for that is one way of learning to love yourself.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.