Saturday, October 01, 2011

Forgiveness: Notes for Shabat Shuva

This is what happens when you don't write it all out of ahead of time.
My friends, who requested a copy of this dvar torah, here are my notes, but it's not, I'm afraid, exactly the dvar you got. I hope this will do for you:

Recently, I spent some time on a caravan driving around the country with Clergy Beyond Borders’ on our Reconciliation tour. I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a very small van, driving around from synagogue to mosque to church – by some oddity, the section of the trip I was on was the “mostly mosques” part of the tour- with a Franciscan brother, an evangelical minister, another rabbi, and a Muslim imam. The purpose of the tour was to talk abut how we, as Americans, can heal our country, bring it together in unity and love. We spent a lot of our driving time talking – well, at least when we weren’t all playing with our phones and netbooks, anyhow. But all that driving left us with hours and hours of discussion about our respective religions’ views on all kinds of things. The time I spent talking with my fellow clergy often circled around to the process of forgiving, and so I found myself thinking a great deal about it over the last week.

For all the time we spend this time of year talking about forgiveness, we spend a remarkably little amount of time talking about the process of forgiving, as opposed to the process of requesting it.

On the face of it, it would seem as though asking forgiveness would be a lot more difficult. After all, it is an act of humility to go before someone and ask their forgiveness. It can be difficult to bend oneself to ask for forgiveness. But offering it, can also be difficult.

Imam Yahya Hendi was one of my companions on the trip, and in hearing his personal story, I have to say that I was moved and made hopeful about the possibility of humans forgiving one another – I don’t want to discuss politics too much – that’s not really the point, but Imam Hendi was born in Nablus, and experienced things that would have made a lesser man hate. But Imam Hendi spends his life working to make Muslims, Christians and Jews tolerant and loving of one another – more than that – (this is the “Beyond Borders” part) not just recognizing that we have differences, but that we should celebrate them, because we have different perspectives and we can learn from one another. This is a message he brings to Muslims as well as Christians and Jews; I have heard it. He quotes the Koran, a passage that if God had wanted all people to be the same , God could have arranged it, but rather we were made to be different, so that we could learn to know one another.

Although we don’t hear as much about it, there are in fact directives from Jewish law about how we are to forgive others.

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os, ch. 6), who is good at this sort of thing, outlines the procedure for the mitzvah of forgiving others. He teaches that you should not hate a person in your heart, but you should privately ask him or her outright, “Why did you do such and such to me?”

Elsewhere he also notes, "It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel." (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2:10)

[One who sincerely apologizes three times for a wrong committed against another has fulfilled his or her obligation to seek forgiveness. Shulchan Aruch OC 606:1]. The corollary is, of course, that if one doesn't forgive a sincere person who asks forgiveness three times, the wrong now rests on the person who refuses to forgive.

But, notice something that’s quite different here than the process of asking forgiveness: unlike repenting, offering forgiveness requires governing one’s own heart. For repenting, much of the process – after one realizes one has done wrong- is action. Admit your wrong and confess to God, confess and apologize to the victim, make restitution, and then refrain from doing it again. But for forgiving… how does one make oneself sincere and open? What if the offense was a serious betrayal?

How can an abused child forgive the parent who abused them – even if they no longer are abusing them, and even if they have begged forgiveness? Must they? What about someone whose husband or wife has cheated on them? Or the child of a murder victim; can they forgive the murderer?

How can one genuinely turn one’s heart with sincerity towards such a person and say, “I forgive you for the wrongs you have committed against me?”

For me --and I am ashamed to admit it-- I think it’s far more difficult to forgive, than it is to ask forgiveness. I don’t mean trivial things: people cutting me off in traffic, or mild irritations or offenses. But there are offenses that I’ve felt in my life that I’ve had a terrible time letting go of. There is a certain level of pride that one has to let go of to forgive, as well as to be forgiven. I struggle with it, all the time.

There’s an international charity that is known for their work in British prisons, called The Forgiveness Project. There are several videos that their participants have made as part of their learning process. I was struck by this quote in a video made by one of the participants Declan Kavannagh – he doesn’t say, but from clues in the video, I would guess that he was an IRA member:

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

Forgiveness of a serious wrong is difficult because it requires us to admit two things – first that we have no control over much of what happens in the world; it is the same humility that shabbat’s prohibitions are supposed to inculcate within us – that ultimately, we are creatures in the world, whose fortunes are not in our own hands. If we refuse to forgive, we can hold onto the myth that we are in control, that we can protect ourselves. Being angry can give us the illusion that we are in control, even if we aren't Letting go of that... is very difficult.

But in love, there is no protection. Love requires us to be open and to risk hurt. Intimacy can only happen when we are willing to stand unmasked and truthful before another.

Forgiveness requires us to admit the risk that comes with love. When we are betrayed – as eventually we all will be, one way or another, by the imperfections of other humans-- we have to risk being hurt again. The only other choice is to stop being in relationship – with anyone. There is no choice, other than this – to risk other people whom you love hurting you, or hurting you again, or not being in relationship with other people. Only God will never betray us – humans will – if only because in the end, we die and leave our loved ones alone.

Even when the person does tshuva, we cannot know if their tshuva is sincere, or if it will ever be complete – that if they are in the same position again, they won’t repeat their action.

Forgiving another person means we must recognize that the person we thought we knew, might become someone else, might, in fact, already be someone else. But forgiveness also frees the other person to walk down a fresh path if they choose it. If we don’t forgive them, they are held in one moment of their lives forever, unable to leave it. Only when we stop holding them in that one moment of wrong are the free to choose another path and walk down it.

Perhaps that is why the Talmud tells us that one who forgives, is himself forgiven.

Raba said: He who forgoes his right [to exact punishment] is forgiven all his iniquities, as it says, Forgiving iniquity and passing by transgression. Who is forgiven iniquity? One who passes by transgression [against himself]. (BT. Rosh Hashana 17a)

If we don’t free the one who wronged us, by forgiving them, it becomes our sin, as well – because we prevented them from becoming a new person, and held them back, in a sense making more sinners in the world. In psalm 121 (:5) it says, יי צלך על יד ימינך God is your shadow (tzel) at your right hand. The Baal Shem Tov understands this to mean that if we are compassionate, God will be compassionate, as well. The Maor eynaim (commentary on Brachot) says,

האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו כך מתראה למעלה אם בגדלות הוא מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה

“a person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of greatness (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.

The context of this is that when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth in the tzaddik, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

But I also like the simple, out-of-context reading, which reminds me of something the Christian writer Anne Lamott wrote:

In writing about acceptance of grief – which is perhaps similar to acceptance of the possibility of hurt—she said this, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

I think it is hard, hard to accept our lack of control over the world. Forgiving others means admitting that we can’t make ourselves safe in this world. And it’s true, we can’t. But we can help make others safe, by forgiving them, and letting them be free to make new choices, instead of holding them in their old ones.

In doing so, it doesn’t make us any safer, but it does connect us to God, both in modeling God’s compassion for the world, but also in being a conduit for that shefa, that flow of the divine that allows the world to continue to exist. When we forgive, we can channel a little of it into that person, even if only for a bit, and perhaps that will make all the difference.

This doesn’t much help us in figuring out the “how,” though, so I want to suggest two things. First, When you’re getting ready to follow Rambam’s directive and go ask the person, “Why did you do this?” or when you’re getting ready to meet with someone who has wronged you, and you know they want to make things right, have a plan in mind – figure out for yourself what kind of resolution or restitution would satisfy you. Be realistic, of course, But ask yourself, “what can I accept?” What would make this specific wrong, right?

Second, It is customary to say, each night before going to bed, a repetition of the shema. There is a prayer that many people join to it:

“Master of the universe I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me or sinned against me either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other; may no one be punished on my account. May it be your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors that I shall sin no more, nor repeat my sins, neither shall I again anger you more do what is wrong in Your eyes, The sins that I have committed, erase in Your abounding mercies but not through suffering or severe illnesses. May the words of my mouth be acceptable before You, Lord my Strength and my Redeemer.”

Much of this comes straight from the Talmud – (BT Yoma 86ff). It is, I think, a way to practice being forgiving. Most of the time, there will be little or nothing to forgive. But when some time comes, perhaps being in the habit of saying the words, will help each of us feel a way through the hurt towards releasing our control over the harms of the world towards us, and releasing a little reflection of light, instead.

The Talmud comments on a verse that comes from this week’s haftarah, “Great is penitence, for it brings healing to the world, as is said, “I will heal their affliction, generously will I take them back in love.” (Hos. 14:5) (BT Yoma 86a)

We live in a broken world. The sparks of creation are still scattered, and it is up to us to find and restore them. In the act of forgiveness, perhaps we are able to lift up a little of the spark of holiness in both ourselves and the one who wronged us, as they join together for a moment, and shine.