#BlogElul 13: Forgive
August 19, 2013
I have a memory from my chaplaincy training at Albany Medical Center. I was sitting with my colleagues, a mixed group of ten clergy and laypeople from a wide variety of traditions, and we were exploring together the question of how to extend pastoral care to someone who had done something terrible. Is it our job, as clergy, to extend forgiveness? What if the patient is near death; does that change anything for us? What if the person to whom we are ministering has done something we feel is unforgivable?
Hospitals are holy places in part because they bring us into contact with life and death, with sickness and health, and those in turn connect us with fears and anxieties which most of us keep submerged most of the time. I remember a lot of pre-surgical patient visits where the patient wanted to talk with me about regrets, about fears, about broken relationships, about hurts both inflicted and received. In Talmud there is a teaching that one should make teshuvah (repent/return) the night before one's death -- and, of course, since one never knows when one's death may be, one should make teshuvah always. The night before a surgery can awaken a deep need to make teshuvah -- and also to struggle with forgiveness, both given and received.
As a chaplain, I understood my job to be primarily about presence. Being present to whatever was being expressed, and to the unique human being who was expressing it. The phrase I used a lot that year was "Manifesting the listening ear of God." But sometimes what we hear, when we listen to the people we care for, can challenge us. Sometimes it triggers us, pushes our buttons, raises our own mental and emotional stuff. There are rules about when we, as clergy, have to report something we've learned in a pastoral visit. (For instance, cases of abuse.) But there are also times when we hear things which don't require reporting, but do require some inner work. Often the challenge is simply to sit with something painful, and to figure out how to respond with compassion both to those who have been hurt, and to those who have inflicted hurt on others.
I remember studying texts in hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) classes about the power of forgiveness, and the ways in which forgiving someone who has hurt one can create a spiritual opening not only for that person (who needs forgiveness in order to move on) but also for the person who has been hurt. Holding a grudge is a constricting spiritual posture; it keeps me clenched-up, metaphysically speaking. Offering forgiveness allows me to release myself from that position. I'm reminded of this every time I have the opportunity to recite the deathbed vidui with someone or on someone's behalf; and every time I recite the nightly vidui; and every time Yom Kippur rolls around. Making a spiritual practice of forgiveness changes me, shapes me in ways I find meaningful and valuable.
And yet. And yet -- there are also times when I can't authentically offer forgiveness. For instance: I have a dear friend who was abused by a parent. When I think of what my friend has gone through, the protective instinct in me wants to wrap my righteous anger around my friend like a shield. I don't want to try to forgive. There's precedent for that kind of sentiment in my tradition. I think of the story (recounted in this collection of Jewish teachings about repentance) about Simon Wiesenthal refusing to forgive a Nazi when that Nazi was dying. The only people who could have forgiven that Nazi were those whom he had killed, and his repentance came too late for them. There is a sense in which it's not my place to offer forgiveness for a wrong which wounded someone else.
Though no merit of my own, I have the privilege of exploring these questions from a distance. These are intellectual and spiritual questions for me, not embodied ones. When I talk about extending forgiveness to those who've hurt me, that might mean someone who was mean or disrespectful, someone who said something unkind, someone who insulted me or my passions -- not someone who physically struck me or abused me. I'm endlessly grateful for that, and I'm also aware that that distance is a luxury. I honor those whose struggle with this is far more visceral than my own, and I respect those who argue that for their own health and wellbeing, they choose not to forgive those who have harmed them.
Forgiveness, as I understand it, does not mean condoning. It does not mean letting someone off the hook. For me, forgiveness means creating a kind of emotional and spiritual opening in myself which allows me to relate to others in a different way. It's a practice, and like any other practice, I find that it takes work and that I'm not always good at it. Just like with my mindfulness practice and my gratitude practice, I try, sometimes I fail, I try again.
We read in the Talmud that for sins between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones -- but for sins between a person and another person, Yom Kippur does not atone until the person has truly sought forgiveness from the person they have wronged. The tradition also teaches that it's cruel to withhold forgiveness from someone who has repented of their misdeeds, and that the withholding of forgiveness is itself a sin, a missing of the mark. Of course, that raises the question: who can tell when someone's repentance, their teshuvah, is real and whole? What if someone's just paying lip service to repentance? This can be particularly difficult to discern in the case of a writer or teacher or public figure whose misdeeds, and apologies, take place in the public sphere. What if the misdeeds are part of a pattern; does their recurrence invalidate previous assertions of repentance -- or new ones?
I tend to assume it's not my job to assess the authenticity of anyone else's teshuvah. And I recognize, also, that all of us miss the mark -- often in the same ways, repeatedly, because our unconscious patterns bring us back to the same inflection points over and over -- and that it's possible to repent a misdeed and to still wind up repeating it even so. This is maybe most dramatically visible in the case of people who struggle with addiction, or with recurring patterns of infidelity, but it's a human tendency I recognize in subtle ways in my own life too. We all bring ourselves back to the same mis-steps until we do the hard spiritual work of discerning what in us needs to change. And sometimes even then, we bring ourselves back to those same well-trodden paths again. In spiritual life, we're always noticing where we are, correcting course, starting over. And over. And over.
In the Chabad tradition, there's a teaching that forgiveness has three steps. First: you stop wishing the person harm, and you pray for their wellbeing, even if you are still hurt and angry. Second: you let go of all anger and resentment toward that person. Third: you restore the relationship. (See Rabbi Michoel Gourarie's essay Must I forgive everyone?) Of course, as even Rabbi Gourarie acknowledges, some relationships shouldn't be restored. Where there is abuse, where there is toxicity, one needs to have the gevurah to maintain good boundaries. But I find meaning in the idea that even in the case of (God forbid) a rapist or an abuser, even when someone else has been harmed and it is not my prerogative nor my place to grant forgiveness, I can still aspire to not wish the wrongdoer harm. I can school myself in the practice of praying for the wellbeing even of those who have done awful things.
Thinking back to the conversation among my chaplaincy cohort: I remember our supervisor suggesting that ultimately forgiveness isn't our job -- it's God's. Reflecting on that, I find myself thinking about a variety of Hasidic teachings which hold that the binaries of good and evil are inextricably bound up with our limited human perspective, but from God's vantage (as it were) a different kind of love and forgiveness are possible. Each year on Yom Kippur night, as we recite the Kol Nidre prayer, we encounter the words וַיֹּֽאמֶר יְי סָלַֽחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶֽךָ / vayomer Adonai, salachti kidvarecha -- "And God said: I have forgiven you, as you have asked." When we come before the One with open hearts, with a genuine yearning for forgiveness, I believe that that God always forgives. Which, again, doesn't mean condoning wrongdoing. It's more of an existential statement about the kind of God I believe in. The God in Whom I believe can forgive even when I can't.
I'm not always able (or entitled) to forgive. But I aspire to live in a spirit of forgiveness. And I believe that it is my job, as a rabbi and as a human being, to try to extend compassion as best I can -- both to those who miss the mark in horrendous ways, and to those who are harmed by others' missing of the mark. All year long, though maybe especially now, as we move through this season of focusing on our own teshuvah.
Here's an essay on forgiveness by someone I really admire: The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield.