Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves

Beloved, show me the way out of this prison.
Make me needless of both worlds.
Pray, erase from mind all
that is not You.

Have mercy Beloved,
though I am nothing but forgetfulness,
You are the essence of forgiveness.
Make me needless of all but You.
Abu Saeed Abil Kheir

What, then, do we long for? Not to forget all the times we have missed the mark, but to be granted understanding for our clumsiness.

What do we crave? Not to harbor rage and anger, but to grow our capacity for compassion and understanding.

What do we need? To forgive ourselves.

Each of these is difficult, painful. Jewish law does not allow us to ask God for forgiveness for our sins against one another. The one you have hurt is the one you must honestly, openly, and humbly ask for forgiveness. Love does mean having to say you are sorry. Your atonement must extend beyond words to actions and deeds; you must show in tangible ways that your apology means a commitment – to change your behavior, to alter your mindset, to become the better person you long to be.

We are not granted forgiveness from God for our cruelties and misunderstandings. Only the people we have hurt by our actions can grant us that gift.

To be able to forgive those who have hurt us demands that we achieve the highest levels of understanding regarding our common humanity. Still, Jewish law does not demand that we achieve that level regardless of cause. There is no insistence that murderers be forgiven. Victims of rape, sexual abuse, and violence are not required to do anything but tend to their own healing.

So often, when we want to forgive our hearts harden and resist. The colleague’s ethnic slur, the neighbor’s intolerance of one’s personal choice in love, the family member who condemns and attacks and seems unable to listen to any kind of reason – it is hard to forgive insult and aggression.

To forgive ourselves can be the most difficult of all. I still remember the only time I struck anyone. I was twelve. A neighborhood boy of seven or eight was bullying my little brother, who was six, and small for his age. Enraged, I took that kid off his bicycle and I hit him. Hard. Forty years later, I still remember the moment I struck another person with more shame than I can describe.

Tomorrow night is Selichot. My congregants will write down the the things they need to forgive in themselves. For this, they may openly ask for God’s help.

We will take the paper we have written on and toss each scrap, each act, into a bowl of water. Then, we will watch those burdens dissolve.

So may our pain.


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