To Err is Human, To Forgive Divine

Why is it so difficult to forgive others? This is a time of year when we are told that we must forgive people if they apologize to us, but sometimes the idea of forgiveness can be too difficult or painful. Besides, aren’t we told that God will forgive someone if they apologize three times? So why should we open ourselves up to pain by doing something that God will do for us anyways?

A number of years ago, I was hurt pretty badly by someone who was very close to me. My entire world was turned upside down by their actions and I felt nothing but contempt - even hatred - for them. I went out of my way to avoid this person and was overcome by anger whenever our paths would accidentally cross - which was inevitable, considering the circles in which we traveled.

At one point, I took a chance at forgiving this person, only to be hurt yet again. And so I decided that no utterance of forgiveness would ever leave my mouth again (at least towards this person). I was taking a stance on moral ground, so certainly I was doing the right thing by punishing this person for their actions.

But the thing is, I think the only person who was truly punished by my stance was me. I was the one who was filled with anger and hatred. I was the one who suffered from stress - worrying about when I might run into this person. I was the one who had to live with the nagging suspicion that maybe I was doing the wrong thing by not forgiving them.

And then one day, the inevitable happened. I was forced yet again to decide between forgiving this person or holding onto this grudge - and I cautiously chose to forgive them. While the process was slow and painful - rebuilding trust and learning how to navigate the new terrain of our relationship - eventually things began to feel different. There was a lightness to the way I felt, no longer weighed down by the burden of anger and stress. I actually could feel a difference in my body as well as in my mind. I realized that it was actually far easier to forgive than it was to hold onto a grudge.

This past June, the country was rattled by the news of Dylann Roof gunning down nine innocent people in a Charleston church. But what truly shocked me was how the victims' families were so open to forgiving the murderer just two days after the tragedy. I was in awe of how faithfully they internalized the call to be like God: compassionate, patient, loving, and forgiving - all of which come from the 13 Attributes, which are recited during the High Holy Days. I realize this is an extreme example, but if these families can forgive the person who ruthlessly killed their loved ones, can’t we forgive the people who commit far less severe transgressions against us?

We all agree it would be unthinkable for an adult to condemn a child to a life of punishment for wronging them. Without a second chance, there would be no incentive for the child to try to be better. But through our patience, understanding, and forgiveness, we show the child we believe they can be better, thereby encouraging their growth and maturation.

And yet, when we hurt others, we are behaving much like children - not fully aware of how our actions may impact those around us. Even if we intentionally harm someone, we are still acting like children in that moment - caught up in the here-and-now, unable to see the big picture. With this in mind, it seems almost cruel to withhold forgiveness from those who wrong us - understanding that the best motivation for growth is not derived from anger and punishment, but from love and forgiveness.

So this year, as we move through the month of Elul into the High Holy Days, I invite us all to embrace the idea of forgiveness. As difficult as it may be, I believe it actually makes ourselves and others better people. And that is what this time of year is all about.

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