Central to Yom Kippur is forgiveness, but how, and who, we forgive is debatable.
The sages teach that on the 10th of Tishrei the Jewish people are annually cleansed of their wrongdoings. Sins wiped from the slate, though, are those committed before God; harms against another person require actions beyond prayer, according to Jewish wisdom.
With Yom Kippur days away, and forgiveness on many people’s minds, Chani Altein said it’s a perfect time to “clear the air.”
People don’t always act how they should; taking time to address this behavior is helpful for all parties, she said.
The Chabad of Squirrel Hill co-director recalled a teaching from author and parenting instructor Slovie Jungreis-Wolff.
“She compared a person walking around with resentment to the person in the airport who is schlepping three duffel bags, a heavy wheelie and another backpack,” Altein said. “The person is weighed down by the load, but meanwhile at the airport, there are people who checked in all their baggage, and all they’ve got is a light fanny pack. In life, don’t we want to be those people who are just sailing through, not being bogged down by resentment and indignation?”
Forgiveness is “a gift that we give ourselves and a gift we give to others,” Altein said. “We’re able to just be at peace.”
Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Cantor Toby Glaser agreed that forgiveness is personally beneficial, and said the process trumps the outcome.
“For me, forgiveness is 100% an internal act,” he said. “I don’t see it as an interaction between two people. I think there are very often instances where it’s important to let someone know that you have forgiven them — whether you forgive them — but I see that as kind of an externalization of an internal process that has already happened.
“Ultimately,” he said, “the act of saying that you forgive someone is performative; it’s not the work, and the intention, and the emotional labor that goes into forgiving someone, which hopefully should feel like an unburdening of your soul.”
Rabbi Chananel Shapiro, menahel of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, encouraged people to approach Yom Kippur by examining the hurt they’ve experienced.
“Holding onto that grudge is affecting you as well,” he said. “Letting go allows you to really start healing.”
That process operates on multiple planes: There’s the basic level of releasing any pain, but in a deeper sense it’s about “understanding that humans are not perfect, that we all make mistakes, and that the person who hurt you has the ability to change for the better,” Shapiro said. Doing so, enables people to “emulate Hashem’s qualities.”
On the night of Yom Kippur, at the conclusion of the Kol Nidrei prayer, three verses are excerpted from Numbers 14 and 15. The passages describe a conversation between Moses and God about the Children of Israel’s wrongdoings.
Rabbi Doris Dyen said these verses typify forgiveness.
“The Jewish approach, it seems to me, is that forgiveness is actually to repair the relationship between two parties, two people or two entities,” she said. “The assumption is that both parties were hurt in some way.”
The Torah identifies an engagement between the Jewish people and God, and “it’s such an interesting idea that God also was hurt by what the people did, and the people were hurt possibly by what they feel God did or didn’t do,” she said.
The wrinkle, Dyen continued, is that if forgiveness is framed as repairing a relationship, what happens when one party refuses to comply?
The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th-century code of Jewish law, maintains that a person must try to seek forgiveness three times: “Each time, someone should take three people with, and if reconciliation was not achieved on the third time, the person seeking forgiveness is no longer obligated.” Even so, according to a note in the text, that person should still declare in front of 10 people that seeking forgiveness was attempted.
Dyen said she’s spent much of the past year contemplating Judaism’s stance on forgiveness.
Six weeks ago, after months of testimony, she attended the conclusion of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial. Following the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty, Dyen, a survivor of the attack, was among 22 people who read victim impact statements. Despite public testimony describing lingering trauma, loss and a quest to defy hatred, the killer refused to address, or make eye contact with, the victims and their family members.
“That person did not show remorse, did not ask for forgiveness,” Dyen said. “Yes, you can say you understand that there might have been reasons that pushed this person to do what he did.
But do I have to forgive him for what he did? I don’t think so. I don’t feel that I have to because no request was ever made that I, or anyone, any of us, in this Jewish community forgive him for what he did. We can come to understand it. We can wish peace for the family if people feel that, but the concept of forgiveness doesn’t apply here in a certain way.”
Forgiveness is about “repairing a relationship, and one side hasn’t shown the interest or concern to repair a relationship,” she said. “In the Jewish understanding of it, as I understand it, forgiveness is a two-way street, and that’s because the purpose is to repair the connection in a healthy way.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.