Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 2023
Today, we focus our energies, our selves, toward atonement, toward repentance, toward teshuvah. Our task today, through our fasting, our prayer, our self-reflection and self-accounting, is to dwell on our own deeds, the actions we took this past year, and evaluate them, seeking to make a repair in ourselves and our relationship with one another. And there is no doubt that this effort is of utmost importance. As we recited a few moments ago, Teshuvah is, along with T’fillah, prayer and Tzedakah, charity or justice, the way we mitigate the intensity in our lives.
But Teshuvah, repentance, is only half the equation, especially with regard to our relationships with others, and maybe even ourselves. Because the goal, at least on some level, of teshuvah is forgiveness. Judaism, by and large, is not a religion that offers absolution for our sins without the forgiveness of others; we cannot observe various rituals and therefore consider ourselves forgiven. As the rabbis, and our former prayerbook, remind us, while Yom Kippur atones for sins between God and humanity, it will only atone between people if they seek out each other’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is the ultimate end, the purpose of our repentance. And Judaism offers a prescription for how to enact that repentance. Our tradition teaches us what teshuvah is supposed to look like: we acknowledge our wrongdoing to the offended person or people. We enact some kind of repair, including asking forgiveness, promising never to do the hurtful thing again, make some kind of reparation or compensation to fix what has been broken, and we do the work within ourselves to make sure we are not the kind of people to create that kind of harm. I was fascinated to discover, in watching a TED talk by Dr. Jennifer Thomas, author of The Five Apology Languages, that her research and the five languages–expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness–almost perfectly line up with what our Tradition teaches about the act of repentance, a nice reminder of the wisdom of our ancient worthies. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
But we know it is extraordinarily complicated. I am so mindful of how the idea of forgiving others for their insult or injury, for the harm that they have caused, is profoundly upsetting to many. Often I have sat with people who have shared painful experiences, traumatic experiences, sometimes so upsetting that it causes the person to relive that experience. In those moments, forgiveness and repentance seem very distant. Every time I have preached or taught on the idea of forgiveness in Judaism, inevitably, some number of people come to me afterwards and ask the same questions: what if the offending party never apologizes, never seeks repentance, or their repentance appears to be only skin deep, without any substance? What if the offending behavior is truly unforgiveable—an injury that cuts so deep that forgiveness seems unimaginable, perhaps even profane. And what if the injuring party either cannot or will not do teshuvah—what if they refuse to take ownership for their actions? What if they died without ever clearing the air? Add to this our own conflicted relationship with the way forgiveness is usually portrayed, which is a Christian idea of forgiveness—to turn the other cheek, to forgive even before the offending person asks for forgiveness—and the whole question becomes extremely complicated.
Complicated, but important. Because we need forgiveness. We do not just need to be forgiven; we need to forgive. There is a reason that, when we take the Torah out at the High Holy Days, we recite God’s attributes of forgiveness and patience—not just as a reminder of God’s love and forgiveness, but as a reminder that we too should be forgiving. That we are taught in our Tradition that forgiving people their transgressions against us is profoundly meritorious. Maimonides reminds us that we should forgive easily, and be slow to anger, and that refusing to forgive is, fundamentally, an act of cruelty. Forgiveness is healing, for both the offended and offender. Without forgiveness, we remain stuck, trapped, digging our heels into various narratives that are, fundamentally, toxic to us. We remain forever the victim or the villain, not just in terms of the one offending action but for everything. We may become increasingly suspicious of others, unable to create bonds. Fundamentally, when we cannot forgive or be forgiven, we remain trapped in an attachment injury, where our needs in a relationship were not only not met but sometimes replaced with harm, and we struggle as a result to find safety and security in our relationships moving forward. That fractured relationship, like shattered glass, becomes the lens through which we will see all other relationships, and wonder if these people too will hurt us as we have been hurt before.
Under these circumstances, what should forgiveness even mean? How should we define forgiveness? I would like to offer a suggestion, a way of thinking about forgiveness that still works within the framework of our tradition, but also answers the questions I asked earlier about what is unforgiveable for whatever reason, an update, a reform, even, of the idea of Forgiveness. A reframing of the question of forgiveness that might give us a bit of respite and relief.[i]
First, we begin, with apologies to Maimonides, defining what forgiveness is NOT. In forgiveness we are not: excusing or tolerating, pardoning, or defending bad behavior: accountability is still important, if not essential, and the wrongs committed, the hurt caused, must be addressed, acknowledged, and repaired, if possible. We are not defending bad behavior for any reason, or granting others impunity, justifying hurtful words or actions in any way: two wrongs do not make a right, the ends do not justify the means, boys will not be boys (and girls will not be girls), etc. We are not forgetting the hurt that was done, acting as if it never happened, gaslighting ourselves or others into minimizing the damage done. And perhaps most importantly, we are not even necessarily hoping for reconciliation. Sometimes actions are simply too painful to repair the relationship, and saying ‘I’m sorry,’ no matter how heartfelt and sincere, does not hit the reset button. Or, to put it another way, forgiveness does not mean we are still friends. And we should be clear that forgiveness, while it will permit a great deal of healing, is not magic. It will not fix everything. What it does, rather, is lay the groundwork for our own recovery and repair. This reimagining of Forgiveness also moves us away from the idea of forgiveness as a passive act: we are not letting bygones be bygones or hoping that time heals all wounds. As we have learned through the years, trauma hijacks our brains and emotions such that time becomes irrelevant, and that pain returns us to the moment of injury as if time never passed.
What, then, is Forgiveness? I want us to think of forgiveness in the following way: it is the reduction in vengeful, angry thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—toward others and ourselves. Forgiveness becomes a way to increase some form of positive thinking and feeling toward the offender. Now, that word ‘positive’ may be misleading—that does not necessarily mean we think of them as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ or thinking of ourselves as somehow worthy of being harmed—remember, we are not defending or justifying. Rather, it means assuming a posture where we can take a more balanced view of the offender and the injury. Most of all, it is an action we can take to achieve more freedom. Freedom from seeing ourselves as victims. Freedom from needing to hold power over the offending person, denying them forgiveness. Freedom from feelings of anger and the need for vengeance—against others and ourselves.
If we reimagine forgiveness as freedom, or rather a path toward freedom and healing, then we find we have more tools at our disposal than that passive response (or lack thereof) to someone’s teshuvah. For example, this idea of forgiveness does not require us to be in communication with the offending individual in order to forgive them. Rather, we can reflect within ourselves and see the offending person for who they were in that moment and perhaps find empathy for them as an individual; not because they changed or sought our approval, but because we decided that our grudge, our ill-will toward the person, our anger and resentment over the injury, was doing us more harm than good.
Forgiveness as freedom also means that we can decide that we are not served by negative feelings toward the other or ourselves, and that whatever self-blame we may carry—that we allowed ourselves to be hurt, that we were stupid or foolish or naïve in some way and are therefore unworthy of love and safety—can be set aside. That freedom allows us to find empathy for ourselves and others and empowers us, rather than holding us captive to the injuring event. Empathy doesn’t mean accepting or endorsing; it means acknowledging that we are all human beings, we are all capable of causing harm despite our best efforts, and that acknowledging each other’s humanity means acknowledging each other’s failings, including our own. And while we might find that for whatever reason we cannot actually forgive the other’s actions, we can find space for self-repair, self-forgiveness, empathizing with our own self in that moment, liberating ourselves from being trapped in the prison of that one moment in our lives.
Forgiveness as freedom relieves us of the need to sit in judgment over the other. So often we refuse to forgive because we want to hold onto that power we have over them, the ability to sit on our high and mighty throne and prosecute the offender in our mind. Of course, we learn that this does not give us power, but rather holds power over us. Instead, we offer our forgiveness to the other as a gift, an act of altruism, of generosity, freeing them from their burdens, and us from the hostility and insecurity that holds us hostage.
Forgiveness as freedom reframes it as one particularly important step on the path toward self-improvement, part of a continuum of healing. It is a radical act that frees us from the illusion that we can control the actions of others. We cannot, but we can work within ourselves to accept our circumstances and situations, no matter how unpleasant. Accept, and then work to change ourselves and our response, and through that, change the world around us.
[i] For this effort, I’m relying on certain ideas in therapy, especially Strength Therapy, including the work of Joshua Schwartz and Sarah Morrison, among others, so those of you with that background will find some of these ideas familiar, and for those who aren’t, this gives you a way to do some research and exploration for your own purposes. I recognize that some of these ideas may be shocking to some as a result, and there might be some resistance to these ideas—certainly they are not necessarily easy to digest, so I encourage you to do a little research yourself.