Forgiveness: It’s Complicated

During the Days of Awe, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jews  prepare to have difficult conversations with friends and family by asking and bestowing forgiveness. Some Jews will even recite prayers of repentance during selichot services. Asking for and granting forgiveness can strengthen relationships and help us heal from past hurts. We ask for forgiveness and grant it all the time. But sometimes an incident can’t be easily forgiven. And that’s okay. 

I was recently asked how to approach the upcoming High Holiday season if someone does not speak to their family because it is emotionally and/or physically unsafe to do so. I’ve reflected on this and come to realize that if someone has decided they can’t have contact with a family member or can’t forgive that person, they probably have a damn good reason.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with stories of reconciliation and redemption. The memes that fill my Instagram feed aren’t the only ones telling me that forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven, Jewish texts do so as well. For example, Leviticus 19:18 teaches us why we shouldn’t bear grudges: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account.” We are told that holding a grudge only harms us and not the person who did wrong. We are told that to forgive will make us feel good or whole. We are told that life is too short to hold onto hurt. Those ideas may all be true in some circumstances but they can also put a lot of pressure on someone who has been hurt, abused, mistreated, or harmed. 

Of course it is beneficial to let go of grudges over something small or petty, or even something material. The Talmud urges us to let go of grudges that arise over money (BT Yoma 23a). There is a big difference between issues that cause a grudge or festering fight than problems that arise out of more egregious forms of harm. Sometimes it’s healthier to make peace with the fact that someone will not apologize, hear us out, or give us what we need. We are not responsible for the hurt others cause us. 

However, I suggest finding ways to process past harm. Members of my Secular Synagogue community have found success with a variety of strategies including resting, therapy, writing a letter to someone who has harmed them (whether it is sent or not), a host of self-care and community-care strategies—from visiting a mikvah or a ritual bath, to hosting a celebration to mark an end to a relationship—and taking time to read. Forgiveness is not the only way to move forward. If someone has done something unforgivable, it’s not your responsibility to forgive them but it’s your responsibility to figure out how you want to keep going either with or without that person in your life.

In my community we often note that the person we have to forgive the most is ourselves. Sometimes we have committed a wrong and have not been forgiven. More often, we beat ourselves up for things that weren’t in our control. We worry over missteps and slights we caused, even long after the person we hurt has stopped thinking about it. We need to let that go and work to forgive, accept, embrace, and love ourselves fully, especially as we acknowledge our imperfections.
I continue to hear stories about people who offered forgiveness in unimaginable circumstances. I have worked with people who reunite with parents who rejected them for being queer; people who forgive the person who sexually assaulted them; people who forgive those who have conned, stolen from, and gaslit them. If that helped the person who was wronged, then the act of forgiveness is worth celebrating. Though, sometimes we need to let go of the pressure to forgive in order to move on. Be kind to yourself, especially if others haven’t been kind to you. 
This time of year is for more than just apologies and forgiveness. It’s for figuring out what we need, who we want to be, and who we want with us on life’s journey. No one is owed your forgiveness, but if you’d like to offer it, this part of the year is a time to consider what we owe others and ourselves. There is beauty, goodness, and wonder in the world and I wish you all that and more this year.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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