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Ask the Rebbetzin: How Do I Forgive My Family?

Q: Dear Rebbetzin,

How do you deal with forgiveness and family? I’m not talking about differences of opinion around the dinner table or annoying idiosyncrasies. To be clear, I’m also not talking about physical or serious verbal abuse. But I am describing people – members of my family of origin and ones acquired by marriage – who have hurt me deeply, who I don’t feel good around, and with whom I want a changed dynamic. I know that we’re nearing the Jewish New Year, and I take these occasions seriously, asking for and giving forgiveness. For some reason this feels much less clear to me when dealing with family.

Wanting this year to be different.

A: Dear Wanting,

You do not owe huge swaths of your life to people who crush your spirit. But family is important, and you are not going to cut ties the way you might if you were dealing with a dysfunctional friendship.

I’ve talked to many people about the complicated relationships we hold in our hearts, particularly the sometimes thornier blood bonds.

One friend says Save yourself, Pray for them.

Another says Forgive with Compassion.

A third says to flip around such scenarios when feeling hurt and look directly into the other person’s eyes while putting your hand on their shoulder – perhaps for a moment too long – and asking “Tell me, how are you doing?” (I’ve yet to attempt what sounds like a Jedi communication maneuver).

We are commanded to honor the mother and father. But Abraham was also instructed to go forth from his native land, the land of his relatives. So where does that situate us?

Sounds like you’re residing in a sort of lousy-in-between where the behaviors are not benign enough roll off and not quite menacing enough to severe ties. In this state, per-haps the best thing is to create healthy boundaries. Are there settings where you feel more comfortable (on your own turf, outings, etc?) Figuring that out and also saying “no” when appropriate will probably help.

Your desire for a changed dynamic tells me that there is good will on your side. That alone is enough to make this year different. Will that be reciprocated? I don’t know.

I do know that the desire for family is primal and essential. Much of this, Wanting, is probably rooted in our wishes and hopes for what these relationships can be, not nec-essarily what they are.

Guard your strong life-force, Wanting. Keep the good will in your heart when you con-sider forgiveness. Try to house these relationships on terms that you feel safe within.

In the immediate weeks after my daughter was born, I wrestled between a strong urge to be around extended family, and a deep necessity to limit these interactions while forging my new family. It was wrenching to reconcile this.

A wise friend suggested I visualize a soundproof-screened-porch where the family members were just outside. They might be annoyed, shouting different demands, even waiving their arms in frustration. But I was on the inside of that enclosed space, having lemon meringue pie with my husband and freshly bathed baby. I could smile and wave and blow kisses and tell them I’d see them later. She suggested they’d still be there when I opened that door. And they were.


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