Forgiving Your Family

on Saturday, 26 September 2009. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

Erev Rosh Hashanah

All night long Jacob wrestles with an angel.[1]

He wrestles with “voices, emotions, fear, and a need to forgive.”[2]

Jacob battles throughout the night, and emerges wounded.

As the sun rises, the angel blesses him with a new name, Yisrael,

one who wrestles with God.

Judaism commands us to wrestle with forgiveness during these Days of Awe.

And while both asking for forgiveness and granting it are challenging,

it is the latter, the act of forgiving, that is often more of a struggle for us.  

When we feel hurt and wronged, when words uttered toward us feel beyond forgiveness, pardoning seems impossible.

This is most true when we feel that someone will never understand or care how profoundly they hurt us,

or when we will never be able to fully convey or recover

from the depth of our pain or anger.

Yet at the same time, we know that this anger holds us captive.

Resentment, and victimhood debilitate us and rob us of the harmony necessary to live fully, vacharta ba’chayyim, “to choose life,” as God commands.

The High Holidays offer us the opportunity to be forgiven and to forgive.

Two different paths—redemption and reconciliation.

But, as Jacob’s bout with the angel demonstrates,

the road to forgiving involves a different kind of self-examination.

In order to forgive, we must re-write an established script—

a script in which we are defined by our hurt and anger.

                                                *          *          *          *

One rabbinic tradition teaches that Rosh Hashannah celebrates the day of human creation. On the sixth day of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed in the garden,

eat the forbidden fruit, are ejected from the garden, and are forgiven by God.

The rabbis’ teach that the world begins with forgiveness.

Our world rests on forgiveness, and without this mercy, it cannot survive.

We read in the Torah a description of God as “Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and forgiving of sin.”[3]

As humans created in God’s image, we are required to ask ourselves,

“If God forgives, how can we not?”

We are led to consider what we will gain by clinging to this wound,

or alternatively, what we will gain by letting go of our anger, forgiving, and moving on.

Many of us find that our mind knows it is time to forgive, but our emotions cannot.

Our profound anger or hurt feel impossible to overcome.

But we can ask ourselves a few questions:

Does my refusal to forgive imprison me as a permanent victim?

Is this really the person I want to be? How can I be a better person by forgiving?

While acknowledging that we have been wronged or injured,

we can still make life-affirming choices.

We can ask “what circumstances may have led to the behavior that hurt us?“

Even more challenging, we can consider, “What else is occurring in my life that might account for how strongly I hold onto this hurt?”

Once we know we want to forgive, how do we begin the daunting task?

One might write a letter that will never be sent. Some people choose to tear the letter up, others might burn it and then mix the ashes with soil in which to plant seeds

symbolizing hope for the healing of the relationship.

Sometimes, in order to forgive others, we must first acknowledge our own shortcomings, and then forgive ourselves.

We have all hurt others, betrayed and ill-treated even those whom we love.

By making peace with our good and bad qualities,

we can more easily accept that mixture in others.

We forgive because we need forgiveness.

Can any genuine relationship endure without acknowledging hurts and granting forgiveness?

Forgiveness comes when we find a new lens for seeing those who have wronged us.

We begin to view others as limited, wounded, struggling like ourselves.[4]

To forgive someone is to let go of the moral leverage we hold over another person—renouncing our superiority.

Granting forgiveness does not always mean a renewal of the relationship as it was before. Sometimes a sin damages, and the bonds cannot be rebuilt.

Forgiveness is about letting the old anger wash away.

While we may never forget what happened,

we can let go of the fury that colors the memory.  

Forgiveness may not solely be about forgiving the other person.

It may simply be about letting our anger wash away and accepting the other’s actions.

In this way, we may be able to move forward and find our own peace.

Healing comes when we untie the angry, gnarled knots we have created within our souls.[5]

And yet, as hard as we try, the process may take a while.

It is helpful to move beyond thinking of forgiveness as all or nothing.

Taking the first steps towards forgiveness may provide a valuable foundation

upon which healing acts can occur.

What matters is that we begin the process of freeing ourselves from our resentment or anger.

God commands us to live in the present, and on this holiday we read,

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”[6]

When we forgive, we choose life.

Most importantly, we know that the peace we long for in the universe begins within ourselves.

In our interconnected world, each act of love increases the love in the world,

and each act of hate deepens hatred. True peace, true shalom, begins with us.

What we hope for in the world we must create individually.

*          *          *          *

Our Sages recognized the enormous task of teshuvah, or repentance.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a tractate of the Talmud, asks, “Who is the mightiest of the mighty? He who turns his enemy into his friend.”[7]

Only the mighty are able to overcome the anger and hurt

and create a new lens for seeing those who have wronged them.   Torah bids us,

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”[8]

Our Torah could have said you shall not strike your brother, or slap him, or curse him. [9] But focusing on the feelings “in our hearts,”

Torah acknowledges the poison that accumulates when we hold onto grudges.

*          *          *          *

Yom Kippur calls upon us to examine and re-examine the decisions we make.

We may have previously refused to forgive, but now we re-evaluate our stance.

This time of year we expect more of ourselves.

We seek this internal generosity of spirit as we begin the New Year.

                                    *          *          *          *

As we begin this soul searching,

may we view forgiveness as an act of strength, not weakness,

and may the words of this prayer by Kathleen Fischer, a theologian and counselor,

guide us:

O God, help me to forgive.

Opposing forces battle within me, pulling me back and forth as in some game of tug of war.

I want to forgive. Then suddenly I’m back in the hurt and anger again and they won’t let go.

Grant me hope and courage in the midst of confusion.

You are the healer of the human spirit.

Guide my steps toward healing and compassion.

Help me to do what is right.[10]

May we go from strength to strength and begin the New Year with a true sense of peace. Hazak hazak v’nit-hazeik. Amen.

[1] Genesis 32.

[2] Karyn D. Kedar, God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart (Jewish Lights Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont) 1999. 69.

[3] Exodus 34:6.

[4] Kathleen Fischer, Forgiving Your Family: A Journey to Healing (Upper Room Books, Nashville) 2005.

[5] David Wolpe, Fighting Forgiveness.

[6] Deuteronomy 30:19.                                         

[7] Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23 [Bialik 646:62].

[8] Lev. 19:17.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16b [Bialik 646:53].

[10] Fischer.