Forgive and Remember

This essay was written and sent out for Rosh Hashanah 5774/2013

Forgive and Remember

As Rosh Hashanah draws us near, we face one of the central concerns of this time: forgiveness.

There are many scriptural, legal and philosophic writings on the subject. On erev yom tov, the morning before Rosh Hashanah even arrives, there is a ceremony called ‘hatarat nedarim’, the Annulment of Vows. It applies only to undertakings that affect ourselves directly but it’s a good start. We ask that God forgive us for promises we made and could not keep.

According to tradition, the ‘Books Of Life and Death’ are open for review by the Heavenly Courts during the ‘10 days of Repentance’ from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. We have not yet been finally assessed or inscribed, regarding the year ahead. Since we are being evaluated, this is not a good time to get into trouble with God. So annulling our vows is a first move in cleaning up our side of the street of life.

Some days from now, during Yom Kippur, we chant and cry the ‘Al Chet’ (‘All Sins’) confessional prayer 10 times, counting on God’s merciful nature to forgive us our trespasses. So long as our confession is honest and our repentance sincere, we can depend on God to pardon us, because we are taught that ‘God’s quality of forgiveness is 500 times more than His wrath’. So far, so good.

However, matters are more complicated. “God’s forgiveness, however extensive, only encompasses those sins which man commits directly against Him. Those in which an injury is caused to one’s fellow man are not forgiven until the injured party has himself forgiven the perpetrator.” In between acts against oneself and acts against God, are the acts towards other people. This is where some difficulties could arise.

According to this ruling, we need the wronged person to absolve us, if our apologies are to be efficacious. Even if a person who did wrong sincerely apologized (and this is not always possible), it would seem that all the power to avoid a poor score on the bar exam of the Heavenly Academy rests with the one who was wronged. No forgiveness by them, no ‘pass mark’, no absolution, even if you are really, really sorry.

Luckily, the sages understood that human beings often get clouded by pettiness and confused through bruised egos. In a brilliant move that puts God back into the centre of the picture and scales the human players down to their right proportions, the sages propose that the onus for the forgiveness and the restoration of peace rests with the one who believes they were wronged.

“The one sinned against is duty bound to forgive.. The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg for forgiveness..’ Reb Nachman of Breslov says: ‘Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you and pardon your offenses.”

What an extra-ordinary statement. The scholars of antiquity say that, if the offended person does not grant a sincere pardon and even pre-empt the need for an apology, the aggrieved person becomes the one who has transgressed. The one who feels wronged, even in the rare case of an undisputed event, is the one who has the first and greater responsibility to forgive and to re-establish kindness in the world.

A clue to why this is so, can be found in a Kabbalistic discussion of God’s creation of the world and specifically with the mature relationship that God desires to have with us, as human beings:

“The Kabbalists did not describe relationships in terms of giver and receiver but rather used the model of the procreative act between male and female. The model of the giver and the receiver is that of a rich man giving charity to a poor man – a situation in which the receiver contributes nothing but the vessel needed by the receiver (and perhaps needed as much by the giver). This is a relatively immature relationship in which the receiver is all but nullified by the giver. But, the Torah stresses that a man and a woman contribute equally to the creation of their offspring – with the woman’s contribution actually preceding her husband’s. Thus both sides are giving and receiving and there is complete unification between them, the hallmark of a mature relationship. Likewise, God created us in order to enter into a mature relationship. From God’s transcendental point of view, all reality is simply He Himself. But, from God’s immanent point of view, He and we can engage in a mature relationship, as it were, that leads to real unification .”

To use our clue, we will need to properly understand why the offended person was wronged in the first place. “Jewish thought believes that man has free choice. However this is only so far as the person’s actions are concerned. One may however separate the person’s free act to the action itself that causes harm to befall the person. The behaviour of the person is done freely but the harm that is caused to the person is predestined. The person is merely the deputy for what is intended to be done to a person.

Aside from some confusion of using the word ‘person’, the message is clear. ‘You do have free will, but your destiny is decided by God.’ Although the ‘wrong-doer’ is still held accountable for their actions, “the harm that befalls the wronged person is predestined and there is little room for a grudge against the medium. The perception of evil as a cause of anger or grudge is a sign that man does not recognise that everything in all of existence is all a part of God.

When a person has sincere belief in God and the correct understanding of their own proportion and place in creation, the matter of forgiveness is no longer ‘bein adam le-chavero’ (between a man and his fellow). The matter now becomes what it actually always was in reality: ‘bein adam le-Makom’ (between man and God) and we leave it to God to decide outcomes. Now we are able to explain why it is the wronged person who needs to offer forgiveness. Ultimately, we forgive in order to remember God.

This concept is expressed beautifully in the poetry of contemporary teaching: “The experience of forgiveness is possible only if one has been betrayed. Such forgiveness is a forgiving which is not a forgetting, but the remembrance of wrong transformed within a wider context.. the salt of bitterness transformed to the salt of wisdom. This wisdom.. I would here take to be that union of love with necessity where feeling finally flows freely into one’s fate, reconciling us with an event.”

To wait for or to expect a person to apologise and then to feel one should or must absolve them, reveals an immature relationship with God. When we understand that the offender and the offended are simply moving parts of God’s creation and contribute equally in what is created between them – if God is acknowledged a living presence, in other words – then even the need for an apology is erased. We are forgiven to the same extent that we forgive others, through our common connection with God.

This is a sign of maturity in our relationship with God. Both persons should declare their own human limitations before God and show kindness towards their fellowman and towards all of creation. And God, as we know, will remember us, forgive us and rejoice with us, for this was always God’s desire.