Forgive and Forget

In the real world, do people forgive?  Yes, of course.

And no.  Of course.

A spouse wrongs his wife or her husband.  He realizes his error and apologizes.  All seems forgiven and forgotten.  It was a mistake, a painful one that caused her husband or his wife terrible sorrow.

The hurt person responds, after a deep and emotional pause: “I forgive you.”

The relationship slowly resumes as it had been before, and life moves forward.

Then, one day later – maybe a week later, maybe three years later – the apologizer does something that hurts the forgiver.  And the “a” word is added to the new remonstration:  “You always do that.”  You always forget to pay the bill.  You always speak that word.  You always manifest that character flaw.  Always.

There are so many ways that we destroy and ruin relationships.  And that always is one of them.  If we should “never say never,” we also should “never say always” – at least in that context.

The capacity to forgive is a remarkable character trait.  Some parents will never forgive a child a slight from years earlier when the child was too immature to appreciate what he or she was saying.  Some children will never forgive a parent for a parenting practice from two decades before, long since abandoned.  Spouses, too, can carry grudges against one another and bear living history for a lifetime.

By contrast, on Yom Kippur, we turn to G-d and ask Him to extend to us a most unnatural, unhuman gift: the Gift of Absolute Forgiveness.

Ana.  S’lakh Na.  Please G-d.  Please Forgive.

We cry, we beg, and we return, again and again and again – all day and much of the night – repeating our confessional.  And we believe that G-d Almig-ty, Who created the World with His Word and directs the course of destiny, actually pauses to hear our prayers and, yes, to forgive. We believe in His forgiveness so powerfully that we feel it – we literally feel the burden lifted – after that final Shofar blast.

But G-d the Forgiver does not forgive automatically.  Rather, to be worthy of His atonement, we first must change ourselves, internalizing a new Self within our cores of being.  First, we must recognize that the misdeed was indeed a sin.  That is a major point of departure.  I tripped my friend, and I am convinced for a year that it was so funny.  And then I finally come to terms:  it was not funny.  He was hurt.  He was embarrassed.  He had to buy new pants.  No, it was not funny.

I got so angry at my child that I respond in a disproportionate way.  And now I finally accept that my temper is out of control, and my reactions are so over-the-top that I need to change, perhaps even to seek outside help.

Having attained recognition of the sin, I next endeavor to regret deeply and sincerely that I sinned in that way.  That Step Two is a personal regret that only G-d can divine.  But He can – because He is divine.  Third, as I fill with regret, I must undertake for the future not to repeat that sin again.  Again, this undertaking mostly is intensely personal, and only G-d the Forgiver can gauge it.

In Judaism, that is how we obtain forgiveness from merciful G-d.  Not by a visit to a clergy room, a request for a pardon, and the recital of a textual formula.  Rather, atonement is assured when the sinner does the hardest work in the world – acting to change her ways, to abandon his path.

In Judaism, this self-growth happens often.  While pop psychologists tell the dating world that “men (or women) never change,” Judaism powerfully disagrees.  That is the whole point of Yom Kippur – people do change, sometimes for life.  They do so because the culture and the calendar demand it, and a forgiving G-d demands it.

Forgiveness is powerful.  It moves mountains because it induces us to become better.  When a person refuses to forgive, perpetually conjuring up the past to remind us our failings, the non-forgiver actually holds back our rehabilitation.  We ask ourselves:  “Why should I change if he will never forgive me anyway?”

But G-d allows us to move on.  Because He forgives, it is safe for us to change, to grow, to evolve in His world.  All we need is a prayer book.  A warm and loving – and quiet – congregation in whose midst to pray.  A sufficiently sensitive rabbi conducting the service and guiding the path.  And, most of all, a sincere, contrite, and open heart and tear ducts to let it all out, so it can enter the gates of Heaven.