I have a confession to make.
I come from what I used to think of as a quintessential New York/Russian neurotic Jewish family. Lots of secrets. Lots of people not talking to each other for days or weeks or decades. Lots of competition for affection. Lots of pitting people against each other. I have no idea when or where that started. But by the time it got to us, my mother and her sister were in it deep—certainly for their father’s affection and for whose kids were “better”—whatever that meant.
My aunt had three kids, the oldest of whom, Robin, is about 18 months younger than I am, and is the family member closest to me in age. When we were growing up, we spent almost every Sunday afternoon after Hebrew School playing together at our grandparents’ house. She was one of my best friends.
In high school, we didn’t see each other as often—different schools and the end of the family Sundays. Before one Spring Break, I called her to see what she had planned over the break—maybe we could get together. She replied, “Nothing, sure, let’s get together.” The next day, my grandfather called my mother from the airport—on their way to his and Grandma’s planned trip to Puerto Rico. He dropped the bombshell that they were taking my cousins with them.
“Nothing, sure, let’s get together.”
Lot of lies and betrayals in my family had been directed at me. Lying was—still is—a big button for me. My mother and sisters reinforced my sense of betrayal, so that when Robin called to apologize—as soon as they got back, I did not even accept her call.
I didn’t allow her to make amends. I wouldn’t hear it.
Over the years, we had nominal getting along times. But the friendship and intimacy was gone.
An important thing to note is that Robin is a really REALLY good person. To the external world, she is amazing—she led the Seattle Federation through the time when someone came and shot up the building and some of the people inside; she was at the forefront of Washington state’s vote for same sex marriage; she has stood up against racism and homophobia and antisemitism. She’s amazing. But to the world inside my family, she is a true star—her three daughters all love each other, like each other, care about each other and are terrific aunts. Robin broke the family cycle of secrets and lies and competition for affection.
But for years, I didn’t know any of that.
About 15 years ago, a friend of mine and I attended a conference near Robin’s home. I agonized for a while and asked my friend if she would accompany me—support me—to meet with Robin. She did and we did. And finally—25 years after the betrayal—I learned Robin’s side of what had happened. What I had internalized as her choosing a trip to Puerto Rico over our friendship, she had understood as a lie that she had been forced into. It wasn’t “the trip or no trip”, it was “this is what you have to do”. Period. The word from her mother and our grandmother. From on high. And I mean ON HIGH. She was 14 or 15 and being told by her formidable matriarchs what had to happen. Somewhat like Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.
At that visit, we realized all the values we share, all the commonalities, all the foibles that come from being from our family.
I’ve been thinking about this story recently because Robin and her husband came to celebrate Sam’s and my 30thanniversary together last month, and it wasn’t until then, as I’ve been thinking about forgiveness, that I realized all the ways I’d been hurt by my unwillingness to forgive.
I realized all the ways I had hurt myself by not listening to her apology when we were teenagers, forgiving her then and moving on with our friendship. I missed out on the support she would have given me when I really could have used it. I missed out.
If I had internalized the messages that our tradition offers about forgiveness, I might have been able to learn how to have sisters be truly loving to each other.
It’s by no means the worst story: I know many of you have stories far worse than mine…And I know some relationship ends would not lead us to regret—bad marriages, violent relationships, abuse, cruelty.
But here we are on this holiest of holy nights, a time that is pregnant with opportunities for wholeness, for reaching for all that we could be if we could wipe away all the schmutzon our souls. In a few minutes, we are going to enter the vidui, the confession, the set of prayers where we let it all hang out—at least to ourselves and to God.
And then we sing v’al kulam Eloha selichot, s’lach lanu, michal lanu, kaper lanu—for all these transgressions, forgive us, pardon us, let us atone…
We have some forgiveness work to do—in all directions—forgiving others who have harmed us, asking for forgiveness of those we’ve hurt, and forgiving ourselves.
Forgiveness is hard work. And it’s been with us Jews since the beginning.
Reading the book of Genesis, you can imagine that we really needed it. If I think my family is a quintessential Jewish family, it’s because our matriarchs and patriarchs showed us how jealousy, greed, anger, sibling rivalry, deceit, and lies take a toll, just as they showed us how compassion and kindness could turn us back to a better path.
And then, in Exodus, we see where we really started to hold grudges: remember to forget Amalek, God tells Moses, remember! (Ex. 17:14, Deut. 25:19) Amalek and his followers attacked our weakest while we were in the wilderness; they came to embody all the evil we have ever faced: Haman was descended from Amalek, and we relate Hitler to Amalek…
This tendency to hold grudges is addressed in the Holiness Code in the next book of the Torah. Leviticus, that we read tomorrow afternoon: in the same verse in which we are admonished to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are told not to bear a grudge or take vengeance upon the children of our people (Lev. 19:18). If it’s in the Torah, it’s likely we needed it. As I did with Robin.
All this tsurisis not good for the soul, nor, it seems, for the heart, or the nervous system. Studies cited by Professor Frederic Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project show that all sorts of health issues arise from the stress. Indeed, people who blame others for their own troubles have a higher incidence of heart disease. And even people who just IMAGINE forgiving their offender note immediate improvement in their cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems.
Holding on to our pain is just not in our best interests.
Luskin defines forgiveness as
the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment. You forgive by challenging the rigid rules you have for other people’s behavior and by focusing your attention on the good things in your life as opposed to the bad. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or denying that painful things occurred. Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your today even though they may have spoiled your past.
You’ll notice an important thing: his definition does not include the relationship with the person who has hurt you. And gratitude—focusing on the good in our lives—helps a lot.
Frank Ostaseski, the author of the wonderful book, The Five Invitations, and a founder of the Zen Hospice Center, notes that
“forgiveness has the power to overcome what divides us. It can melt the armor of fear and resentment around our hearts that keeps us separate from others, from ourselves, and from life itself…
Forgiveness is a fierce practice. It takes real strength, a willingness to be with what is difficult. It asks us to face our demons. It requires absolute honesty. We must be willing to see things as they are, bearing witness to painful acts that happened to us or the harm we may have done to others. Sometimes we need to rage. Sometimes we need to grapple with our guilt. Sometimes we need to fall into a deep sorrow. Forgiveness isn’t about squelching any of these emotions. It is about facing them with kindness, paying close attention to what is getting in the way of our letting go.
Judaism teaches that we always have a choice: about how we act, about how we respond and about how we feel. That burst of anger, or that fear that my daughter might be dead on the road if she’s late: that might be involuntary. But the next emotion, the next response, the next action: that’s entirely on us. As human beings, we have a choice at each moment whether to feel sorry for ourselves, to hold onto the hurt, to refuse to open our heart. It is always on us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, taught: “Forgiveness, it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. This may sound like a joke, but how many of us refuse to give up our version of the past, and so find it impossible to forgive ourselves or others, impossible to act in the present?”
Rabbi Rachel Cowan, of blessed memory, shared a teaching of Sylvia Boorstein’s, who taught that “It couldn’t have been better.” Because if it could have been—if my grandfather could have told Robin it was okay to tell me, if Robin had had the strength at a tender age to stand up to our formidable grandmother—things would have been different. But they couldn’t, or they would have. So things really couldn’t have been better.
One of the images that helps me think about forgiveness is about how much space we rent out in our heads—and space in our hearts—to the people who’ve hurt us. It’s emotional, spiritual and even physical energy and time wasted on the other person. Sam’s ex-wife told us—nine years after she left him and they divorced—that she was angry with him every single day of her life. She was clearly renting way too much space in her head to him, while he had moved on and was happily remarried. I had never felt so sorry for her, that she was wasting so much space on him.
On the other hand, sometimes, we let things go so long, we think we’ve buried the hurt. That’s what I did with Robin. I rarely thought about her, although in those moments when I did, the old pain would emerge, like a zombie from the dead. It’s not like I’d processed it productively—I’d just pushed it aside and worn it down with the activities of daily living.
Some of us stop speaking to people we love for years, and can’t remember why. But the absence, the lack of the relationship can eat at us—not always, but sometimes. I sometimes worry about getting that call, you know the one: this loved one you haven’t spoken to in years is dying, and wants to see you, or, even worse, that loved one died and you missed your opportunity.
Forgiveness is about not carrying the pain anymore. It’s about freeing yourself, making the choice to let it go. And it requires real strength.
Forgiveness is NOT about reconciliation or any relationship whatsoever. It MIGHT lead to it, but it’s not necessary. And it is not necessary for the other person to apologize or be sorry in any way. That would be giving the perpetrator too much power.
If it’s possible to trust the person again—which I imagine requires the whole apology, restorative justice piece, and maybe some time, that could be great. But it’s not necessary for you to free up space in your head. We can shift away from being afraid of the pain to becoming capable of embracing it. And this opens the mind to compassion.
And all forgiveness is a form of self-forgiveness. Once we realize the pain of anger and resentment and the sense of being wronged is only hurting ourselves, we can release it. And move on with the rest of our lives. Given that our inner critic found its way in from our parents or sibs or someone else, let’s try to retire them, retrain them, give them new instructions.
And let’s not miss out on years of better relationships. Let’s make it better now.
May we all find the compassion, kindness and love and the ability to sit with the pain long enough to learn from it and then touch with enough mercy to let it go. May we melt what the prophet Ezekiel called our hearts of stone, unfeeling, rigid, encased, and turn them into hearts of flesh—open, available, loving. Let us reach the kaper lanu of leaving no trace of bitterness in our hearts. And may it happen now, before the gates close at Neilah, rather than wait 25 years.
G’mar chatimah tovah– may you be inscribed for all good things.