Welcome Home to Forgiveness
Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim
Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014
The shot, the fumble, the drive, the decision. If you’re a long suffering Cleveland sports fan, then you know the moment your heart was broken as our team once again suffered defeat. But this past summer, things started to look up. How many of you know where you were when you heard these words: The apology, the Return? Of course, the apology is a reference to Cleveland Cavalier’s owner Dan Gilbert’s apology for the infamous letter which took LeBron James to task for leaving Cleveland in 2010. Gilbert’s apology created an opening for LeBron to then issue his own letter of regret for how he handled his departure. And the confluence of these apologies made room for “The Return!” In LeBron James’ iconic words: “I’m coming home.” It’s the beginning of a new season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it’s the beginning of a new year for the Jewish people, and in both cases the apology and the return give us hope for fulfilling our aspirations in this season.
Having been primed earlier in the summer by our getting a new Jewish coach from Israel for the Cavs, when I heard all the summer talk about the apology and the return, I couldn’t help but think of how these actions were a direct reflection of what Judaism teaches. The actions of the owner and the player were covered effectively by the term central to these Days of Awe—the word “Teshuva.”
Teshuva actually means “return,” but in English, we often call it “Repentance.” The tradition teaches that to do repentance we must engage in the difficult process that requires us to acknowledge our wrongs, own them, apologize for them, and make amends. But there is one more step which tests our sincerity. The ancient rabbis have upheld as the final act of amends that a person, when faced with a similar situation, must refrain from acting as he or she did in the past.
It worked for LeBron. Given the opportunity to break the hearts of fans in Miami and in Cleveland, he rose to the occasion and did it differently. He made it possible for those who previously had burned their jersey, to feel good about buying a new one. The earlier hurt and disappointment he had caused us seemed to wrap up into a neat package of “all forgiven.”
Would that there was such a neat package of forgiveness for us with the people who are part of our more personal relationships of family and friends? How do we begin to repair the relationships we’ve burned along life’s path and rebuild the associations that were important to us in the past to create a promising future?
No doubt, over the course of a lifetime we have each experienced the disappointment that comes from a spouse, parent, sibling, child, or extended family not behaving in a way that meets our expectations and thus causes us distress. We may have felt similarly about the actions of a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance, even sometimes your rabbi. I do not have to concoct an example for you; it might sound like I was revealing your story—because so many of our stories of hurt feelings are essentially the same at their core. The reality is that each of us can quickly conjure up our own memory of how we felt intentionally wounded or unintentionally offended by the conduct of someone in our life. It has happened to all of us at some time and caused each of angst at some level.
But in this season conjuring up these incidents in our mind is not just an act of remembering. You may have heard of the condition called hyperthymesia, it’s the “never forget syndrome.” The person has a super autobiographical memory with all the associated feelings completely in tact as well. Because they remember the past so clearly, it is difficult for them to forgive. To review an incident over and over again would be to get stuck there like watching a painful instant replay.
You see, this is the season when we do a kind of replay of the past; we do so not for the sake of raising greater pain and hostility, but in hopes of facilitating exactly the opposite outcome. It is not the rehashing of the past, but the reevaluating of it that carries the potential for the reconciliation we seek. This is the season of Teshuva, of repentance so that we can return to better relationships and larger possibilities before us.
We know, of course, that this is the season when we ask God for forgiveness. We pray—Selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu: all variations of the theme of forgiveness– forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!!! Through our prayers we are guided to consider our offenses; we join as a community to admit our faults; and we ask God for forgiveness. It’s a neat package that allows us to feel renewed at the end of the season when we declare “And God said: ‘Salachti c’devarecha, I have pardoned in response to your words.'” However, our tradition mandates that before we can receive forgiveness from God, we must first turn to those whom we have offended and apologize to them.
Mending our relationships we are taught centers on the concept of apologies followed by forgiveness. But what happens when we offer an apology and it is rejected? Perhaps it is rejected because it was thought to be an insincere apology. It’s so rare to be able to have our sincerity tested by confronting the exact same situation again as LeBron did. Here tradition offers us some guidance: we learn that the offender must approach the person they’ve offended seeking their forgiveness three times. This exercise forces the offender who may have shown some reluctance at first to get on the page of sincerity by the third time. Consequently, if for example, Johnny, the initially offended party, does not in the end accept Ruth’s apology, then the chet becomes his. The chet –not like in English “hate”—as in to strongly dislike, but rather as in the Hebrew meaning “sin”; or more correctly, as a derivative of an archer’s term, meaning to miss the mark. The apology extended three times and not received graciously moves the target of the chet to the one who has hardened his or her heart. That person holding a deep seeded grudge or “hate,” then becomes the sinner, the one missing the mark. Again a kind of self-contained neat package solution.
However, the problem is that not all matters can be wrapped up into this kind of tidy outcome. Not every act of forgiveness necessarily begins with an act of apology that forges the path to forgiveness. The classic example is what happens when someone dies before they have had the chance to apologize. Again, here the wisdom of the Sages of Jewish tradition aids our going forth—this time without that hoped-for- apology. The tradition says “Death Atones!” Many people may not realize that in our tradition we have a prayer recited at the time close to death. It’s the Vidui prayer—the same name as the communal Vidui we recite on Yom Kippur. The Vidui is a confession, and in this case is a personal one. If possible the dying person says it for him or herself, but often it is the family who must say it on their behalf. It contains these thoughts: “If You, God, have decreed that I shall die of this affliction, may my death atone for all sins and transgressions which I have committed before you….” It has the dying person beseech God “protect my beloved family, with whose soul my own soul is bound.” And concludes with the watchword of our faith “the Shema.” The prayer cleans the slate with God, and with all whom the dying person has injured because it acknowledges resentment, and identifies that regardless of an impaired relationship, the souls remain connected in particular when it comes to family.
We saw a reflection of how souls are bound together to the very end in the biblical story of Isaac and his sons. Children who had been severely wounded by their parents’ actions and had become bitter sibling rivals, nonetheless, joined together for the burial of their father, and with great simplicity, the Torah captures it all as it records: “Esau and Jacob, his sons buried him.” And similarly, Isaac and Ishmael had jointly performed the last rites for their father Abraham. How unfortunate that these parents did not live long enough to see the family come together, and that it was tragedy that reunited them. Nonetheless, would that even this were how it happened every time in real life situations. And so we rely on the fact that even if there was no pronouncement of the Vidui prayer, tradition insists, a person’s death atones, and like the person who is offered a sincere apology but refuses it, holding onto a grudge becomes our chet.
Jewish tradition is clear that we must not bear a grudge against another. One of the highest principles in Jewish tradition is at stake. It is the principle of Peace or Shalom. We are commanded in the Pirke Avot: The Sayings of Our Ancestors to “be like disciples of Aaron loving Peace and Pursuing Peace.” The commentary on this passage describes Aaron, the older brother of Moses, going from one party to the other saying to each: “If only you knew how he with whom you have quarreled regrets his harsh words to you!” The result became that former enemies would in their hearts forgive each other, and as soon as they were again face to face, would greet each other as friends.” In this passage peace is not just something we wait around for, or passively hope for, rather it is something to be actively pursued. And part of pursuing peace as Aaron did is to engage the parties. Stepping in to facilitate shalom—peace in the home or in any environment is considered a great merit. (Pirke Avot Hertz (1:12).
And as the Beatles sang—”I get by with a little help from my friends.” The process of healing can get underway, when a friend tries to reach out. Some might call this meddling, but Jewish tradition implores us: _________________________: do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. This is not merely a reference to when blood spills, but also to when blood boils. We have a responsibility to each other to help heal the hurt, to act responsibly to bring about peace. So many of our prayers call upon God as the Maker of Peace, Oseh Shalom, Shalom Rav, Sim Shalom. As we, created in the image of God, take our place as partners with God, we too, are called upon to be makers of peace.
Further, as we recognize from Aaron, seeking peace for the two parties, healing the rift, may not begin with an apology on the part of the participants. What strikes me about Aaron’s deeds, and therefore, about real life, is that his intervention did not ask either party to apologize. So often we wait for the apology to move forward, and if there is not one in the making, we give up on the relationship? How, if there is no apology, can we seek peace —between people, and as significantly, how do we seek peace for ourselves?
Inscribed on the wall of the Home for Children in Calcutta established by the Nobel Peace prize winner Mother Teresa, are these words: “People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.” I am in no way minimizing that there are some awful things that happen in this world. Crimes are perpetrated in vicious manner and against people of all ages. To hear about these kinds of egregious matters breaks our hearts, let alone the hearts of those who suffer the reality of the pain and consequences. When the news reports a story of parents who forgive the murderer of their child, we are in awe of their spirit. For most of us, we are spared those kinds of horrendous happenings, yet we still find it hard to forgive the one who has injured us so much less severely. That is why it bears focusing on the fact that the act of forgiveness is less for the perpetrator than it is for oneself. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his Book The Sacred Act of Lovingkindness suggests: “Forgiveness is not forgetting.” It is NOT an act of excusing the reason for the wrongful act; or accepting or acquiescing to an ongoing hurt; or to denying that something awful has happened. Rather forgiveness is letting go. (p.110-111). With or without the apology as a starter, forgiving the offender and the offense is really about letting go of the hurt that consumes us. Forgiveness is an act of restoring one’s emotional well-being and spiritual health.
Some years ago, recognizing the physiological and psychological health toll that carrying around unresolved anger and blame for past hurts can cause, Stanford University Professor Frederic Luskin launched “The Forgiveness Project.” He sought to systematize the process of reconciliation and focused on actually training forgiveness. In his assessment forgiveness “consists primarily of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender, and developing increased understanding of situations that often lead to feeling hurt and angry.”
According to Luskin, when people are hurt, they often create a “Grievance story.” In our grievance story we spin a web of characters and layers of intertwined events, and we manipulate some of the facts to make the other person responsible for our suffering. In our story there is a someone, who did something, against us, and every time we retell it whether to ourselves or another, the “grievance story” reaches deeper and causes even greater hurt. But these grievance stories erect roadblocks to reconciliation. They frequently leave us as the downtrodden victim with no perceivable resolution in our frame of reference.
How do we begin the process of moving forward? Taking less personal offense may be easier when we are talking about an athlete who disappoints us; but what about those with whom we interact more deeply?
In making the Forgiveness Project our own, we recognize that often we set up the offender as someone who violates some of our fundamental rules about how the world should work and the how people should behave. While these rules may indeed be legitimate, moving forward requires us to make peace with the fact that some people play by different rules and we are powerless to make them do otherwise. When we renounce our impossible expectations of the perfect marriage, children, family, or friendship; when we stop trying to control them; when we take back responsibility for our own happiness, then we are more readily able to forgive. Then we start paying attention to controlling ourselves and return to our best self again.
Forgiveness is essentially realizing we can only change ourselves. That is in essence the big theme of this High Holy Day season. No matter whether there is an apology or none in the making, we can liberate our minds and hearts, by taking back control of ourselves by practicing forgiveness in the same way we might begin to develop any other skill. I remember the beloved former Cavs point guard Mark Price being interviewed by a sports commentator about how he hit free throws with a remarkable 90% accuracy. Price responded that he practiced the shot all the time because his father drilled in him that if you can’t make a basket unguarded and from a standing still position, you have no business being in the game. In our “Forgiveness Project” there is a simple parallel. We can learn to be better forgivers if we practice in an unguarded environment—perhaps by reviewing what we would say when we are alone in our car, articulating aloud alternative emotional routes we could take so that in the crunch situation, when we are called upon to react quickly, we are ready with the right response. And we can begin with the little stuff. You may remember that Saturday Night Live skit where the person at the Mc Donald’s counter starts dilly-dallying as if the menu had changed in the last twenty-four hours. The person behind her then impatiently yells out “Get outta the line!” We could practice forgiveness when we find ourselves in slow moving lines, attended to by overburdened wait-staff, or you can add your own example from yesterday or today, I’m sure. In these situations there is rarely an apology on the horizon coming from anyone, but we just forgive them anyway. As we advance in our training, we can work on eliminating the negative feelings we have toward a person. We can change the narrative of our grievance story to one where we take less offense, or at the very least develop a healthy state of indifference. We can offer the person forgiveness even if they do not ask for, or even want our forgiveness. That is not to say, that one must become best friends or closest siblings, or continuously be at a parent’s side, but we can begin to restore those relationships which were once important to us by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable again; just as in this season of repentance, we make ourselves vulnerable before God.
Like developing the ability to pray meaningfully, the art of forgiveness is not a skill we develop overnight. It is a journey to get there. It’s a journey that invites us to pray with sincerity, to stop wishing others harm and holding a grudge, and to let go of anger and resentments long held. To do otherwise is to shackle ourselves to the very pain from which we want to escape. Practicing forgiveness is liberating! It is emotionally restorative. It is spiritually healing! Forgiveness restores to us our peace of mind.
When we think of the word for peace – shalom; we are reminded it comes from the Hebrew word shalem—which means whole or complete. As we pray for peace in this holy season, let us make our lives whole and our prayers complete by welcoming back into our hearts those people who were once important to us–before it is too late. Let us train ourselves to be forgiving with or without the delivery of a well-packaged apology. Then we will know the wholeness of standing before God as we seek forgiveness for ourselves.
May the Sound of the shofar on this Rosh HaShanna pierce through the barriers that keep us from each other, and serve as the call to forgive one another anyway. Amen.