The concept of forgiveness has intrigued me for years. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main reason is that I never quite understood what it was. Probably like most people, I held the popular definition of forgiveness to be letting someone off the hook. It seemed like forgiveness was all about someone apologizes, or sometimes they don’t, and you decide that it was OK.
If one were to search the word “forgive” on Google, one would see the definition of “stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone”, cancel a debt, and as a “request to excuse or regard indulgently ones’ foibles, ignorance or impoliteness”. Forgiving is used a lot in religion. The concept centers around how people are not perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. This is a common conception and deserves more attention.
Forgiveness is also an important concept in Psychology. Many people are dealing with situations that left them in various stages of emotional trauma from people who hurt, demeaned or berated their self-esteem. Counselors and therapists will say that we forgive those that hurt us so that we can move on with our lives and not be burdened by the emotional trauma that interferes with our happiness and contentment.
In Judaism, in order to forgive or be forgiven, one must first repent. This is borne out in our weekday Tefillah, or Amidah. In the weekday version, the prayer for repenting precedes the prayer for forgiveness.
Most Jews know that there for our daily obligation, there are three prayer services: Evening, Morning and Afternoon. This is, however, a fourth prayer service. It is called the bedtime Shema. As per its name, it is the prayers that we say right before going to bed. It is arranged to bring a certain peace so that one can retire and sleep peacefully.
In one of the prayer books (Artscroll Mesorah), the very first prayer is one of forgiveness. It starts off by stating, “I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me”. Later, it states, “May no [one] be punished because of me”. Noble, yes, but what does that really do for us?
Consider that the point of this “forgiveness” is to bring us to peace. How do we achieve peace knowing that people have hurt us? How do we settle into a peaceful sleep knowing that people have sought to injure us emotionally by demeaning and denigrating us?
Perhaps the best answer to these questions is that these people hurt us because that’s who they are. These people engaged in negative behavior because it’s a function of their character. They hurt us because we were there, and we hadn’t been there, it would have been someone else or other people would have tried to demean us. In other words, it was about them, not us. They just needed a scapegoat.
In the Torah, we are seeing how Moshe Rabbeinu appealed to Pharaoh to “Let our people go”. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He was who he was, a dictator that would do as he saw fit ignoring the plagues and majesty and power of Hashem. Rather than be a mensch and say, OK, you people have served us long enough, you deserve your freedom, he clung to his perception of power. He would not relent; this is who he was, and he was going to die before deferring to a greater power and a humane cause. Pharaoh would rather destroy his country and see his people die before doing the right thing and free an enslaved people.
That’s really the main point. We forgive people because they are at the mercy of their own emotions. King Solomon, in his Book of Proverbs, said, “Who is strong? One who controls their emotions.” These people are not strong; they are weak. Otherwise, they would be looking to build up their self-worth by making someone else look bad.
Probably the biggest issue when someone is the target of people (yes, it’s usually in the plural, mob rule) is how the victims internalize the abuse. They think that since they are the target, they must somehow deserve it. The problem is that no human is perfect it is more than easy to find fault with anyone. Some people just prey on people and you were just there by chance. The important point to all this is that if it wasn’t you, it’d be someone else. And it will be someone else because people who hurt people spend their lives looking for targets and since they’ve devoted so much time and effort, they’re very good at it.
The most important takeaway is that it’s not you, it’s them. No one has the right to abuse another person because of who they are. You don’t like that person? Stay away from them. If you have an issue with someone? Talk it out. That takes character and integrity.
Remember: it’s easy to sink into the depths of depravity by demeaning another human being. It takes backbone to work to resolve differences. And that’s what Judaism is all about: going for the higher road.