2016-06-30
Q. What does Judaism teach about forgiveness?

A Hasidic parable tells 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 alone through the world. In time, the King's heart softened, and he sent his ministers to find his son and ask him to return. When they located the young man, he answered them that he could not return to the kingdom--he had been too hurt, and his heart still harbored bitterness. The ministers brought back the sad news to their King.

The King told them to bring his son the following message: "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you."

This is a story about hardness of heart, faith, forgiveness and love. Whether we identify with the king or the child, we all understand what it is to fight against forgiveness. At times we feel as if, to use the imagery of the Talmud, clay rises in our hearts, and we feel stony instead of soft. We tell ourselves that forgiveness is not deserved. Our anger is just.

The triumph of the King was that he overcame the rage that had mastered his feelings, and led to the exile of one he had loved. Forgiveness is the lightening of our own hearts. The darkness of hatred, of rage and contempt that we harbor inside rarely injure the unforgiven as much as they do the one who will not forgive. We imagine that our continued anger is so powerful that it will bring sorrow and ruin on those against whom we hold a grudge. But its influence is far more dangerous for our own hearts.

According to one rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) celebrates the day of the creation of human beings. That sixth day of creation, the same tradition goes on to teach, is the day in which Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, ate the fruit, were ejected from the garden, and were forgiven by God.

Judaism teaches that God models forgiveness for human beings. All of us fall short, and we ask God to forgive us. Our task is to grant others what we hope for from God.

Judaism teaches those who have done wrong to seek forgiveness. It mandates that the offender must sincerely ask pardon, and seek to correct the wrongs he has done. But it also teaches that after a certain point--three sincere apologies, an attempt at restitution, a clear indication that the person has changed--it becomes the obligation of the wronged party to forgive.

Forgiveness does not always mean a renewal of the relationship as it was before. Sometimes a sin destroys, and the connection cannot be rebuilt. Forgiveness is not building something new, but letting the old wash away--the old anger.

Healing is not identical with forgetfulness. When we have been seriously injured, we may never forget what happened. But we can let go of the fury that colors the memory. We can drain our memories of some passion.

In pardoning another we bring something precious into the world. All of us need forgiveness: There is no one so righteous, Koheleth tells us, that he does only good and never sins (Eccl. 7.1). By forgiving we enhance the presence of compassion in the world.

Lifting ourselves out of the here and now can give us a truer perspective on our predicament. Will this insult matter in thirty years, or thirty days? If you could fly, an take an eagle's view of the crisis, would it still matter so much? In short, is what happened as grievous as it seems?

Sometimes we cling to anger not because we have to, but because it gives us something: the feeling of our own righteousness, a reason not to deal with another, a clean line to draw between good and bad. But our tradition asks us to rise above pettiness, anger, divisiveness, all that sullies the purity and beauty of God's world.

To forgive another is to open up a new pathway in your spirit.

The point of this tradition is that the world begins with forgiveness. Yes, there is sin in the beginning as well, but it is the emphasis on forgiveness that distinguishes the teaching. Without mercy, the Rabbis teach, the world cannot survive.

In the Bible the human journey begins with sin and forgiveness. One is natural, the other necessary. We will sin, each and every one of us. But will we forgive?

We forgive in part because we need forgiveness. Every one of us has bruised another, has betrayed and ill-treated even those whom we love.


As a Rabbi, I see families torn apart, siblings who do not speak, parents who cannot sit in the same room with their children, ex-spouses who speak of each other in tones of deep contempt. All of them know that forgiveness is an ideal, but even for those who are closest--perhaps especially for those who have been closest, it seems an impossible ideal. After what the other person has done to me, why should I forgive?

We forgive in part because we need forgiveness. Every one of us has bruised another, has betrayed and ill-treated even those whom we love. Can any marriage, any friendship endure without constant forgiveness? What we hope for in the world we must create. We cannot have what we will not give.

How do we forgive?

To attain to forgiveness--for it is a state, not an action--we must come to certain realizations.

Forgiveness is about more than finding reasons, or understanding. Often our anger melts away when we truly understand the circumstances of the other, but that is not identical with forgiveness. Although it is important to try to understand the motivations of other people, true forgiveness occurs when conduct has been inexcusable, not when it has been understandable. A misunderstanding that is cleared up is not an occasion for forgiveness, but for further clarity. Forgiveness is a generosity of the heart, not an example of clear thinking.

True forgiveness occurs when conduct has been inexcusable, not when it has been understandable.


To forgive someone is to believe them to have been wrong, and to let go of the moral leverage that grants us over another. Forgiveness is renouncing the position of remaining superior. It is a leveling borne of letting go.

The next realization is that we forgive for ourselves.

Anyone who has borne a grudge knows its corrosive effect. The grudge perches on the heart like a gargoyle on a parapet, looking out with an ugly countenance and growling at the world. Sometimes anger at one person spills over into our love for another. For as the Jewish tradition warns, anger is like a bubbling pot, and no one can control where and how it overflows.

The human heart carries hurts through life. We are all scarred, and burdened, and broken in different ways. Many of these injuries are unavoidable. We cannot escape the losses that life brings. But we control whether our souls are tied in knots, angry and gnarled. We cannot control the world, but we are each of us the captains of our own souls.

Forgiveness takes time. Forgiving is a process we go through to attain the state of forgiveness. There will be anger and backsliding. But like all true journeys, we cannot exactly imagine where we will end up once we have taken the journey.



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