Forgiveness is a very prominent theme during the High Holidays. We ask to be forgiven for our sins so that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year. While G-d typically knows how sincere we are and forgives us, it is really from other people whom we feel we have offended that we seek out.
The Sages have determined that our obligation is to ask three times and then the offense is on the unforgiving party. “Three” is considered a number of strength. We recite the introduction to the “Birchat Hamazon” (Grace after eating) only when we have three people; the thirteen attributes are recited three times; it takes three people to make up a Beit Din, the lowest court.
Many people dwell on the idea of forgiveness because it is such an influence in our lives. Most, if not all, of us have been emotionally hurt at times in our lives and that emotional injury remains for an extended period of time. How much effort and energy do we devote, in fact, to resolving those issues?
Many of those in the Mental Health profession have developed processes to help people through the process of healing from hurt. People have a hard time forgiving because most people think forgiveness is letting someone off the hook. We feel that they have hurt us and then needs to be some sort of retribution to vindicate us.
Many Mental Health professionals will contend that forgiving is crucial to establishing inner peace; the idea is to let go of that anguish. Forgiving, then, is not about the offender—it’s about us. We have to let go of that anger and depression in order to move on with our lives.
Consider that Judaism’s concept of forgiveness is different from just about those processes. In order to understand that, let us examine the weekday Amidah. Different from the seven prayers of Shabbat Amidah, the weekday Amidah has nineteen. (The first three and the last three are the same).
The first three are the standard Patriarchs, G-d’s Might and G-d’s name. In the weekday version, the fourth asks for insight and wisdom. The fifth asks Hashem to bring us back to His Law for repentance. We then strike our chest twice as we ask for forgiveness from any sins we may have committed. The seventh asks G-d to take up our grievance and redeem us.
Forgiveness is thus a process of understanding what we did, asking for the wisdom to do better, and then repenting. The bottom line is that forgiveness has to earned. We are not forgiven unless we are truly sorry for what we did and have a sincere desire to do better in the future.
Using this process as a model, it stands to reason that we really don’t have to forgive someone who is not sorry! What do we do, then, to reconcile our hurt feelings?
First of all, what is it about the offense that bothers us so much? When someone insults us or does something to hurt us, it’s not just the actual offense. What really hurts is that by attacking us, they have dismissed who we are. They have shown us a lack of respect and thus invalidated us as a person. In other words, we don’t matter.
It is that last part that causes us so much anguish. According to them, we’re nobody, nothing. The interesting part is that we can feel this from people we don’t even know! This is why we get upset when someone cuts us off on the road. The message is that they are more important than us and they need to have preference getting where they need to be.
In Judaism, there are commandments that address the actual act. G-d has told us to love our fellow as ourselves and do not seek vengeance which is G-d’s domain. We are to just go about our business and leave the reward and punishment to our Father who will administer justice. That can give us some comfort in seeking retribution and vindication.
It is our feelings that really need healing. In analyzing the above process, we realize that the reason we are so bothered by someone hurting us is because we put such emphasis on how others feel about us. We base how we feel about ourselves on how others feel about us. And that is where all the inner conflict comes from.
In this High Holiday season, we make a pledge to do better. We need to make a pledge to do better for ourselves. We need to minimize this hurt by being our own reinforcement. It needs to be our own perception of ourselves that matters, not someone else’s. We should all commit to making a pledge this year that our view of ourselves will be from us. It is nice when other validate those feelings, but not critical.
After all, as we examined in Pirkei Avot, Hillel said it best: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now when. This year, in 5781, let’s all be for ourselves. (And, other people, too).