Most of the prayers of Yom Kippur and the practices of teshuvah, of repentance and return, are opportunities to ask for forgiveness. We surface remorse for the ways we messed up. We become attuned to harmful behaviours we weren’t conscious of. We take responsibility for our wrongs and lay the groundwork for lasting change in our lives and out into the world. We’re all here pretty much for that purpose, right? – because if you came for the entertainment, the next 25 hours are going to be kind of a bummer.
Tonight, I want us to think about the other side of the forgiveness equation. When you have been wronged, hurt, undermined, when you have been insulted, cheated, betrayed, when someone else’s actions have caused you pain, what does it take for you to forgive? We can’t really understand the work of apologizing and repenting for our wrongs, unless we know how to unearth forgiving in our own bodies, hearts and minds.
I’ll say right off the bat that Judaism’s approach does not assert that being forgiving should aspire to martydom. We are not being asked to offer the other cheek when the first is slapped. A Jewish approach to forgiving does not justify or dismiss cruelty or allow injustice to go unaddressed. The call to forgive partners with teshuvah, with the person who wronged you coming to you with regret and apology. But even in light of the other person’s remorse, how do we work with the protective scar tissue that forms around our wounds? How do we work with the ways that we now look at this other person differently? And is there a reason to forgive, a way to forgive, when the other person’s apology seems partial, unsatisfying or is not offered at all? What do we want to learn about how we hold on to hurt and how we might transform it in ourselves and in our relationships?
In the very centre of the Torah, in the middle of the book of Leviticus (19:17-18), two verses lay the foundation of Judaism’s ethics of forgiving. The Torah states, “You shall not hate your fellow in your heart. Rebuke your fellow and incur no guilt because of them. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kin. Love your fellow as yourself: I am YHVH (Adonai).”
In a tradition that places so much emphasis on what we do, rather than on what we believe or feel, this moral realm is surprisingly focused on what we hold in our hearts, alongside what we do with our hands.
In the heat of anger or in the smoldering hurt of bitterness and injury, exactly when we would want to hurt someone back, make them pay, cut off relationship altogether or forever put them in the doghouse and eternally hold their transgression over their head, we are told instead – do not hate this person, even in the hidden recesses of your heart. Do not seek revenge. Don’t hold a grudge against them. Tell them directly how they wronged you. And find the path to trade in your hatred for loving.
I listen to this list and it sounds superhuman. I listen to this list and I think of giants of forgiveness – Nelson Mandela finding forgiveness for his prison guards or a Tibetan monk describing the dangers of being in Tibet under Chinese oppression, remarking, “sometimes there was the danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.”
But for those of us who are just ordinary people, for those of us confronting wounds and hurts on a more ordinary scale, how can Torah guide us to navigate this nonetheless painful, raw, protective terrain?
The directive that I can wrap my head around most readily is the imperative not to take revenge. Yes, the desire for revenge is a natural reaction, but I can acknowledge that in the mindset of vengeance, the score will never be even. One assault leads to another and simply doesn’t stop unless one person is willing to reign in the urge to punish the other.
You’re probably familiar with the biblical verse “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he has injured a person, so it shall be done to him” (Leviticus 24:20-21). The meaning is explicit and obvious – if you damage me, I get to damage you.
But the Sages of the Talmud, who were building Judaism out of the wreckage of Roman destruction, cruelty and violence, refused to read revenge as a Jewish value. They did, what we are always called to do – to read our sacred texts through the lens of our evolving moral awareness; to read our sources until they read ethically. So they chose to raise up the parts of Torah that bend toward compassion, that define justice as seeking fairness and repair and support the human capacity to change, rather than an idea of exacting justice that will make the whole world blind. Our Sages were unequivocal about interpreting this verse as a metaphor for monetary compensation and damages. If someone damages your eye, they own you the value of your eye, but you must surrender the right to get even.
The medieval commentator, Rashi, understands not taking revenge as more nuanced and puts it in the same emotional field as bearing a grudge. He teaches – if I say to my neighbour – “lend me your sickle” (because a good sickle is hard to find) and my neighbour says, ‘no’, and then the next day my neighbour asks me for my hatchet and I say “I am not going to lend it to you, just as you didn’t lend me your sickle,” that is revenge. But, if my neighbour wouldn’t lend me her sickle, and when she asks for my hatchet I say, “I’ll lend you my hatchet because I’m not like you,” that is bearing a grudge.
For Rashi, revenge entails so much more than a reciprocal poke in the eye, so much more than actively hurting someone back. It can include a whole host of ways that we deliberately withhold kindness, laced with cruelty – withholding generosity, withholding help when the other person needs it, withholding sympathy when they are in distress. With the bitterness of revenge, we deny this one person the moral treatment that Judaism calls on us to extend to every human being. That is vengeful.
And for Rashi, bearing a grudge doesn’t refrain from acting generously, but the giving is tainted with vindictive words and self-righteousness. A grudge turns a moment of wrong-doing into a calcified identity of you being wrong and me being wronged. It locks us together into the roles of victim and perpetrator, as long as my grudge shall live.
With both vengeance and grudges, our behaviour is not growing out of the rich soil of our values. It is rising out of the gritty residue of our hurt and anger. That difference makes a world of difference. It means that instead of acting from the integrity of our principles, we are allowing our choices to be determined by someone else. It means that we are nursing hatred in our hearts, giving it life within us and contributing to hatred in a world that already has more than enough hate.
One of the first steps in a different direction is the commandment – “do not hate your fellow in your heart, but rather, “ho’che’ach to’chi’ach et ami’techa – reproach your fellow.” Rather than holding secret resentment, we are called to move out of the bunker of self-enclosure, with the imperative to tell the other person how they caused us pain. Perhaps they had no awareness of what they did. Perhaps they didn’t know how it impacted us. Perhaps the honest interaction will stir regret or sensitivity or the ability to see the situation through our eyes. This is certainly challenging to do. It can be embarrassing and awkward. It might even set us up to be hurt or disappointed again, but it is powerful because, through it, we stop being victims. We can’t control how the other person will respond but we take it into our hands to open the door and invite a conversation of repair.
And perhaps it opens an opportunity for that person to explain themselves. The truth of truths is that everyone is waging battles that we know nothing about, even the people closest to us. And most likely, the battles we wage have been with us since childhood and have been inherited from the struggling generations before us. None of us are to blame for the hurts we carry, or the ways we have not yet learned to heal them. From the largest perspective, every one of us is always doing the best that we possibly can with the tools we have. When we are hit in the crossfire from someone else’s battle, it is not personal. That truth doesn’t lessen the pain or excuse the harm, but it gives us understanding. It can soften our resentment, enable us to look at this other person with compassion and it can give us the willingness to work toward forgiveness, to be invested in our mutual healing and growth.
We all make mistakes. We can all be cruel sometimes. Our faults and mistakes deserve to be seen in the much greater picture of our goodness, our struggles and our capacity to change. And it takes work and practice to choose to look at each other in that light. We have to be willing to receive an imperfect apology. We will probably not be Mandela in the fullness of our forgiveness. We will have to accept that we are all works in progress. It’s not dramatic and grand, but this is the brave-hearted, aspirational path that leads us from hatred to loving. Do not hate your fellow in your heart. Reprove your fellow. Do not take revenge. Do not bear a grudge. Learn to love your fellow as yourself. This is the path of Adonai. Even small actions along the road to ultimate loving, are of a different order than even the largest restraint that stays on the path of hatred.
We come back here, year after year, to remind each other that this is our work together. working toward mutual healing and growth, holding out love as the path and the destination. No matter how alone we may feel, how hurt we are, or how strongly we cling to our grudges, we travel this road together. Let’s enter this year daring to grow a little closer and more loving, a little braver, opening the doors of forgiveness.