Posted on June 29th, 2010 No comments
This week we have the second in our occasional summer series on Saying Sorry. This week Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. the editor of this blog shares some of her reflections of the shape of forgiveness.
Person one: Ani Mevakesh S’licha U’michila
Person two: Ani Noten S’licha U’michila
I ask for forgiveness and absolution
I grant forgiveness and absolution
A few years ago, just before Rosh Hashana, I sat with a friend and reviewed the past year. It was clear that there was tension in our friendship. As we discussed what had happened, I apologized for the hurt that I had caused. She accepted my apology. In the next breath she explained that despite this, she no longer wanted to maintain a connection.
Our tradition tells us a great deal about righting a wrong that we commit. Doing teshuvah means following up on apologies with changes in behavior. As Maimonides teaches, we are obligated to forgive. But while we can measure changes in bad behavior, can we measure forgiveness? In other words what does forgiveness look like?
Recently another friend was confronted with this question. A woman who had hurt her badly in the past moved into her community. At the time of the betrayal, which had involved a sexual impropriety, forgiveness has been sought and my friend had been unwilling and unable to grant it. Five years later, the woman had written my friend a letter of apology, which my friend judged as sincere, but still my friend was unable to forgive. She had thought the man involved would one day be her husband and the woman her maid of honor. A few months ago, when a mutual friend re-introduced them at Temple, the old friend acknowledged their past by saying that she they had known each other when the old friend was “younger and very, very foolish.” As my friend reported, forgiveness had been actively sought three times.
In many ways my friend had moved on from the old place of hurt and anger. In the intervening decades, my friend married a wonderful man with whom she has built a family. She is happy with her life and freely admits that had she married her then boyfriend it would not have been nearly as happy. Until this woman moved into her community she had not thought of her in years.
My friend has assumed that the distance from the events and the lessening of feelings constituted a form of forgiveness. But when the old friend reappeared, my friend was not so sure. With another newcomer to the community, my friend would have opened the doors to her home for Shabbat, offered advice on schools and camps but in this case she did not.
When repentance is sincere we obliged to forgive, but how do we know when that obligation is fulfilled?
In counseling my friend, I pointed out that in many ways she was acting on her forgiveness. She had not brought up the sins of the past. She was not shunning this woman or besmirching her name in the community. For all intents and purposes, she was allowing this woman to live the teshuvah that she claimed to seek. As Solomon Schimmel has explained in his book Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness there are levels of forgiveness. IWe do not have an obligation to re-embrace an individual with no memory of their transgression or the hurt it caused but we are obligated to allow them to act the fullness of their teshuvah. We do not have an obligation to return to a world that existed before the rupture occurred.
This concept is echoed in our tradition which distinguishes between mechilah –the letting go of a grudge- and slicha –the letting go that happens deep in the heart – and kapparah – the complete wiping clean of the slate.
When we ask for and are granted forgiveness it does not lead to earthly kapparah. We have to realize that in transgressing, we can never go back to the way the world was before we acted. Our actions have consequences and while we may be able to do a full teshuvah we cannot expect that the forgiveness will mean a full embrace by those we have wronged in the past. When we agree to grant mechilah we take the first step in a process with the hope that we will arrive at some day at a state of full slicha. But the final forgiveness, the full letting go is not ours to give, that level of forgiveness belongs only to God.
 רמב”ם הלכות חובל ומזיק פרק ה הלכה י
ואסור לנחבל להיות אכזרי ולא ימחול לו ואין זו דרך זרע ישראל אלא כיון שבקש ממנו החובל ונתחנן לו פעם ראשונה ושניה וידע שהוא שב מחטאו וניחם על רעתו ימחול לו, וכל הממהר למחול הרי הוא משובח ג ורוח חכמים נוחה הימנו.
Posted on June 22nd, 2010 1 comment
This week we begin a occasional summer series on the topic of saying sorry. As we prepare our hearts and actions for the work of Elul, we hope that the words of the HUC-JIR faculty and staff will help deepen our own understandings and insights. This week, Dr. Richard Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought on the Cincinnati campus brings ancient wisdom to bear on some of our contemporary culture of apologizing.
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Readers of a certain age will recall this ad-line for the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s short novel Love Story, which was all the rage in pop and campus culture at the time. I remember thinking—even then—how fatuous (and sentimental) that statement is. For Jews, love means precisely having to say you’re sorry, but not just saying.
As I am writing this piece, two prominent apologies have just been noted in the press. First, Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum, began his testimony before the U.S. Congress with an apology to the American people for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which he acknowledged should never have happened. To many, this must have felt like cold comfort and empty words after the fact, particularly when BP’s safety record has been so problematic for years. The establishment of a $20 billion dollar fund to compensate those whose livelihoods have been ruined by the spill (after some arm-twisting from President Obama) is at least an attempt to make good on the apology. Words must be followed by actions if they are to be given any credence, because deeds have consequences.
Two days earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron had issued an official apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings by British troops of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry—and he, too, used words similar to those of Tony Hayward: “What happened should never, ever have happened.” But of course it did, and there’s the rub. Only deeds can atone for deeds—but words can have profound symbolic significance as an outward expression of an inward change. As John F. Burns noted in The New York Times Week in Review on June 20, “Seen from the historical viewpoint, this was an act of reconciliation to be listed alongside . . .[those of] other penitents throughout the ages.”
Which brings us full circle back to a religious perspective and to our own Jewish tradition as we prepare once again for the High Holy Days. (One of our sons as a child used to refer, not incorrectly, to Yom Kippur as “I’m Sorry Day”).
I always carry around in my head a little verse that I memorized as a first-grader in religious school, from Dorothy Kripke’s children’s book, Let’s Talk About God:
God and friends and parents
Forgive wrong things we do
If we can say, “I’m sorry,”
And really mean it, too.
Herein is both the problem and, perhaps, a way toward a solution. Talk is cheap. Words do not, cannot, undo deeds. But words can at least begin the process of restitution and reconciliation as an outward expression of an inward change, as an acknowledgement of responsibility for one’s actions, as a way of reaching out to the other.
Maimonides’ definition of teshuvah (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada’, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1) notes that the process of teshuvah must begin with a verbal confession (vidui)—in words, out loud—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. (And if this verbal confession is hypocritical, the person is like one who immerses in a mikveh still holding onto a dead creeping thing, a primary source of impurity; Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:3—what a powerfully concrete analogy!). Expanding upon M. Yoma 8:9, Maimonides continues, “Transgressions against one’s fellow, as for instance, if one wounds, curses or robs one’s neighbor or commits similar wrongs, are never pardoned until the injured party has received due compensation and has also been appeased. Even though he has made compensation, the wrongdoer must also appease the one he has injured and ask his forgiveness. Even if a person only annoyed another in words, he has to pacify the latter and entreat him until he has obtained his forgiveness” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9-10).
So, while words alone do not suffice for full repentance (they must be accompanied by compensation and a change in behavior), they are a necessary part of the process: words are our first line of social communication as adults. (We socialize our children by saying: “Use your words.”) But our words must truly express who we are and what we mean when we wish to make amends and to change relationships. And then we must stand by our words with deeds—“and really mean it, too.”