On Granting Forgiveness

The Rambam teaches us, “Yom kippur wipes clean wrongs committed between a person and God.  For Yom Kippur to atone for sins between people a person must go and ask for forgiveness.

The Rambam continues, “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him.

For someone to be cruel in the context of forgiveness is to hold onto the anger just for the sake of being angry. When we are asked to forgive and we do not, how do we know whether or not we are being cruel? 

Cruelty is when we could forgive and do not just to hurt the other person.  At this time of year we need to ask ourselves, can I forgive the person asking me? If we know they are going to continue to do us harm we do not.  If they have resolved to really no longer harm then we need to accept their apology.  To do otherwise is being cruel.

According to Jewish law one is required to ask for forgiveness three times.  If after three times the person who was wronged still has not granted forgiveness then the guilty party is no longer obligated to ask. 

When someone does something wrong to us it is like they have handed us a lead weight we are now forced to carry.  When they ask for forgiveness they aught to be trying to relieve us of our burden.  If this is so, then if we do not accept their apology, is it in the hope that they will feel the pain we have felt? This is not usually what happens.  What usually happens is they move on and we are still carrying the weight of the pain. 

We learn in a Midrash, a Jewish legend, that forgiveness was a necessary component of creation.  This Midrash teaches, that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit and were ejected from the Garden of Eden, they were also forgiven by God.

Rabbi David Wolpe interprets this Midrash to mean that the world and its existence begins with forgiveness.  While there was sin at the beginning, it is important to notice Judaism’s emphasis on forgiveness in this story and not the sin.  For without mercy, the world cannot survive.  Every person will sin but will we have the strength to forgive when asked. Rabbi Wolpe goes onto say, “forgiveness is a generosity of the heart, not an example of clear thinking”.

In the TV show Friday Night Lights, the school guidance counselor says to one of her students, “There is no weakness in forgiveness”.  To forgive is an act of bravery, strength, and power, absent of reason or logic.

Asking for forgiveness is hard.  Meaningful things are often difficult.  Finding the strength to forgive is even harder.  We shouldn’t blindly forgive, but we also need to make sure we are open to being forgiving.

In the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, a song all about moving on, there is a lyric I think is illustrative of why forgiving is so difficult. Stevie Nicks sings, “Well, I've been afraid of changin', 'Cause I've built my life around you”.  Sometimes we build our lives and our self-definitions around the pain we have experienced.  We worry that if we let go of that pain we won’t know who we are.   The fear becomes: who am I if I don’t have my pain?

 Find the strength and power to forgive those who have wronged us, not to make them feel better, but so you can move on and actualize your hopes and dreams and become the person you want to be in this coming year. 

Our tradition teaches there are four types of temperaments,

Easy to provoke and easy to appease–his loss is canceled by his gain.

Hard to provoke and hard to appease–his gain is canceled by his loss.

Hard to provoke and easy to appease–he is a saintly man.

Easy to provoke and hard to appease–he is a wicked man.

While we should be easy to appease, forgiveness must be earned.  If someone has hurt us we should not forgive them until they have made amends.  If we recognize, in the other, an honest effort has been put forth to make things right, then we must allow ourselves to be forgiving.

I would like to close with two stories:

The story is told of the rabbi of Brisk who was once unassumingly traveling home on the train. He shared company with a group of callous Jews playing cards. Bothered by his aloof attitude, one of them demanded that he join the game or leave the car. When the rabbi didn't comply, the fellow physically removed him from the train car.

When the train arrived at Brisk, also the stop of the offender, he was shocked to see the throngs of people who stood there waiting to greet their rabbi. Mortified, he ran over to ask forgiveness but was denied. Not able to be calmed, he tried again and again. Finally he made contact with the rabbi's son and begged him to find a way for him to be absolved.

The boy, surprised at his father's uncharacteristic behavior, agreed to do whatever possible. He visited his father and began discussing the laws of forgiveness. Their discussion touched upon the law that a person must not turn away someone asking his forgiveness more than three times. Taking his cue, the boy asked his father, "What about So-and-So, he's asked you to forgive him numerous times; yet you deny him forgiveness?"
He replied, "Him? I cannot forgive him for he didn't offend me, the rabbi of Brisk; he offended the simple Jew he took me to be. Let him ask forgiveness from a simple Jew."

There is another story, of a king who quarreled with his son.  In a fit of rage the king exiled his son from the kingdom.  Years passed and the son wandered though the world.  In time, the king’s heart softened, so he sent his ministers to find his son and ask him to return.  When they located the young man, he said that he could not return to the kingdom.  He had been too hurt and his heart still harbored bitterness.  The ministers brought back word to the king.  The king told his son the following message, “Return as far as you can and I will come the rest of the way”.

The difference in these two stories is the nature of the apology.  The first was of a man who was embarrassed, but probably had no intention of changing his behavior.  The second of a remorseful king, who showed in his actions, how he had changed.

If the person approaching us asking to be forgiven shows evidence of being truly  repentant ask yourself: what type of person do I want to be?  Do I want to be the type of person who holds onto anger?  Do I want to be cruel just for the sake of making this person suffer? Or do I want to be a person of mercy and understanding?  The choice is yours.