Has forgiveness become fugacious?

In our own lives we can each decide where every fight starts and stops.

Religious men praying in Krakow Ghetto on Yom Kippur 1940. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Religious men praying in Krakow Ghetto on Yom Kippur 1940.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
This past Wednesday was called Yom Kippur, a day that we believe God is willing to forgive our myriad transgressions in return for some remorse and true resolve to be better. Forgiveness was once a novel concept that was introduced some thousands of years ago to a world that regularly saw feuds lasting hundreds of years, and petty grievances escalating into all-out war. Forgiveness allows these fights to be nipped in the bud and the defusing generally of difficult situations. It is the permission we so desperately need as a society to admit that we, and the people around us make mistakes, and that it is OK.
Forgiveness, as I said, is not a free ticket. It requires reflection and character-building, and as such, I have found myself contemplating what I can do better this coming year. My train of thought led me to thinking more broadly to how we as a society can better ourselves. After all, if there is one thing that everyone agrees with it is that there are some serious social and societal problems in the world today. There will be no quick solution to fixing the discord rampant in daily life, but it seems to me a worthwhile endeavor to try what we can to help. The question, of course, is: What can we do?
I spent much time mulling this over until I finally had my proverbial light bulb moment. It was so simple that I felt foolish for not coming up with it earlier. The answer I was searching for is embodied in Yom Kippur. Forgiveness. Our society lacks forgiveness. There does not exist a mistake unaccounted for or an error ignored. We have given up on the value of turning a blind eye in favor of eviscerating even the smallest misstep. Even old misdeeds are dug up in hopes of outing or ruining upstanding people. Perhaps I am wrong, but this seems to me a dangerous road to go down.
There are surely many reasons to explain how we ended up at this point, and I am no psychologist or sociologist so I will not try to definitively explain the nature of the beast. However, I would offer that people often learn their behaviors from the authority figures in their lives. While this is obviously not an indictment of all authority figures, ask yourself how many times you’ve seen or received overly harsh reactions from superiors.
WHETHER IT’S a teacher in school, parents in the house, or a boss in the office, we have all seen too often an authority figure who has no patience for a mistake and punishes quickly without even considering forgiveness. The swiftness with which I’ve seen some parents and teachers ground and discipline their kids for some wrongdoing is honestly frightening. They may have done wrong, but they deserve better.
I understand that many authority figures don’t have the time or patience to deal with everyone’s little mistakes, but consider the lessons being imparted when they opt for harshness instead of forgiveness. They are subliminally telling their disciples the way to respond to those who do something less than perfect. In our fast-paced society where nobody has patience for anything outside their phones, is it any wonder that today’s younger generation has no concept of forgiveness? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks so wisely says, “Lessons are caught, not taught.” If you want people to forgive then they must first experience that as the expected response to wrongdoing.
This is not to say that these “disciples” who don’t forgive are free of responsibility for that. However, we all have someone in our lives to whom we are in some way an authority figure. Or maybe we have an opportunity to influence a stranger’s life either positively or negatively depending on our reaction. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to forgive their mistakes and present them the opportunity to learn this alternate way of dealing with misdeeds. To be a functioning society we need forgiveness. We need to believe in the inherent goodness of those around us despite their faults if we are to avoid such rancor in the future.
In our own lives we can each decide where every fight starts and stops. We must choose to stop it because we can, because that is how we can slowly rebuild a peaceful society one step at a time.
Ronald Reagan once said, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms.” Within our own families, whether biological or social, we decide if society will value forgiveness above hate and pardon above spite. Let’s try and make the right choice this year.
The writer is a 22-year-old Orthodox Jew from Monsey, NY, with plans to pursue a degree in law.