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The Art of Forgiving

Come the High Holy Day season, we expect to see a great deal of discussion, in Jewish publications of various sorts, of teshuva (repentance), and particularly of what it means to be a ba’al teshuva (literally, a master of repentance). We might read something about Maimonides’s description of the ba’al teshuva — the one who, placed in the same situation in which he or she previously sinned, now manages to resist temptation. And surely we will be reminded of how it is our obligation to approach the one against whom we have sinned — be that one God or human — admit what we have done wrong and beg forgiveness.

But almost all these many discussions, some of them extremely learned, ignore completely the fact that teshuva takes place in the context of relationship, and if there is relationship, then there are two parties who must participate in the process of teshuva, not only one. In other words, if there is a sin, there is someone (or some- One) sinned against, and when we return (do teshuva), we are returning to that someone to repair the relationship we have transgressed. But as we all know, for a relationship truly to be repaired, something beyond repentance is necessary. It is not enough for the sinner to beg forgiveness. For the relationship to be restored, the sinner must be forgiven.

And that — the act of forgiving — is perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process. In truth, if you are a well-intentioned person, you will not want to do wrong. And when you go astray of a relationship, you will want to apologize to the one you have offended and resolve not to do the same again. But what if you are the offendee? How can you forgive the one who approaches you if he or she has hurt you so much? What good are mere words (“I am sorry. Please forgive me.”) when the hurt has been deep and long lasting?

It is because of this difficulty, I think, that Maimonides emphasizes the obligation to forgive, declaring that one is forbidden to be stubborn (really: cruel) by refusing to forgive the one who begs your forgiveness. The offended party, he says, must forgive with a “full heart and glad soul,” for this is what it means to be a Jew: to be kind and forgiving, not cruel and unyielding. And the Talmud, recognizing how difficult forgiving can be, insists that one must take affirmative actions to facilitate forgiveness. So, if someone does not come to apologize to you before Yom Kippur, go to his or her place so that, seeing you, he will apologize and then you will be able to forgive. If this doesn’t work the first time, try it again. If it doesn’t work the next time, do it repeatedly.

The talmudic stories that illustrate these obligations (found in tractate Yoma, pages 87a-b) exhibit a profound understanding of human nature. In fact, it is not always easy to admit to someone that you have wronged them and to ask their forgiveness. But as difficult as this may be, it is rendered that much more difficult if you have reason to believe you will not be forgiven. The stubbornness that moves someone not to forgive makes it nearly impossible for the offending party to ask for forgiveness in the first place. So you, the offended party, stand in a position of great power, and with power comes responsibility. In this case, it is the responsibility to make sure the other knows you are likely to forgive.

This, I would like to argue, is a much neglected mitzvah of Yom Kippur. We have thought a lot about being ba’alei teshuva — masters of repentance — but we have thought little about being ba’alei selicha — masters of forgiveness. Yet mastering this is key to completing the process. We must, therefore, ask ourselves what it truly takes to forgive, not begrudgingly but with a “full heart and glad soul.” What must we do to open our hearts to those who have wronged us? How can we let them know we will forgive them? How can we make ourselves present to them in a way that is not forbidding but inviting? These are the questions an aspiring ba’al selicha must seek to answer.

On Yom Kippur we hope — we rely on the assumption — that God will forgive us. If we hope for God’s forgiveness, we can do no less. So seek out the one who has hurt you. Then smile, open up a conversation and show yourself to be yielding. When you do this, the person hopefully will find it within himself or herself to ask your forgiveness. And when that person asks, hopefully you will find it within yourself to forgive.

David Kraemer is Joseph J. and Dora Abell librarian and professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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