A version of this article appeared on OU.org and the Shabbat Shalom Newsletter
Learning to forgive can be difficult and time-consuming. But here are two reasons why it is worth the bother.
First, forgiveness is an act of self-care. If you are bitter over the past, then the damage continues. Hatred festering in your heart harms you, physically, emotionally and spiritually. By choosing to let go of resentment, you no longer hold yourself hostage to the past. When you forgive, you choose to be free and cut the cords that bind you to the hurtful party, cords of hate, anger and bitterness.
Second, the Torah tells us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). The Sages teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of hatred among our people, and that the redemption will come when we remove this poison from our midst. We are now in the middle of the Three Weeks, a time when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We need to mourn, we need to pray; we also need to remove hatred from our hearts, ensuring that we are not holding up the redemption.
Forgiveness is not all or nothing; it exists on a spectrum. At one end is full forgiveness, where we release a person from our claim against him or her (excluding any money owed) and let go of resentment. At the other end, we reduce – even if only slightly – the animosity and bitterness we feel.
If the perpetrator is evil, it may not be appropriate to extend full forgiveness. Wicked people have brought themselves to a level lower than that of an animal. Sometimes, the best approach is to think of them as rabid dogs, protecting ourselves from them, and feeling neither bitterness nor forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean excusing the hurt or forgetting the past. We need to learn from our experiences and when necessary, keep a polite but safe distance from those who may hurt us again. For others, even after forgiving them, we need to be assertive and let them know how we would like to be treated and which behaviors are unacceptable.
The three tools
The following three strategies will assist you to begin forgiving.
1) Strengthen your faith. Read works on faith and remind yourself that while people are accountable for misdeeds, no one can harm us without our Creator giving permission. As Jeremiah said (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?” When we have this mindset, we no longer blame others for our pain and difficulties; our challenges come from God for our eternal benefit.
In addition, every violation against another person is also a violation against God’s Torah; He prohibits harming His children. Even when we extend forgiveness and release our claim against the offender, unless the person repents, God holds that person accountable for transgressing the Torah. With faith, we trust God and rely on Him to ensure that justice is done; there is no need to hold on to our personal claim against the offender and certainly no benefit in holding on to bitterness.
2) Acknowledge that no one is perfect and that we all have challenges. Most misdeeds are not done out of malice; people usually think what they’re doing is right. Hurtful acts are often committed out of ignorance or due to misguided notions of what is appropriate. Factors leading to lapses in judgment include being blinded by self-interest and sinful impulses, and failing to overcome difficult life circumstances, e.g., insufficient parenting, emotional issues, etc.
Think about people who have wronged you and ask, “Is it possible they think they did the right thing? Do I sometimes make mistakes in judgment? Can I guarantee that I would have acted differently had I been in their situation?” You are not excusing their actions, but when you acknowledge that we all have failings, you will have an easier time forgiving. See Rabbi Mark Spiro’s insightful article “Dangerous Assumptions” (at Aish.com), for a discussion on how our hatred of others is frequently fueled by mistaken assumptions of malevolent intent.
3) Speak to the person who hurt you (when appropriate), or use imagery. Often, once people wrong us, instead of approaching them to discuss the issue, we cut off all contact with them. But just because people did something bad, does not make them bad people. There is a lot more to each of us than one act or behavior. In addition, do we ever make mistakes? How then can we expect perfection from others and write them off as soon as they behave inappropriately?
Most people deserve for us to let them know that we were hurt by them; even if they don’t deserve this, we still deserve an apology.
Speak to the person privately and when you are both calm. Be factual and do not make accusations. Focus on your side of the story, without passing judgment on their actions. Tell them what they did, how it made you feel and the ways in which you were affected. When done tactfully and respectfully, most decent people will apologize when they hear about the pain they caused. A sincere apology goes a long way towards helping us forgive.
Depending on how the above interaction goes, you may want to spell out exactly what you would like from them, e.g., “I would like an apology,” or, “I would appreciate if you did the following…(to make amends or to prevent a recurrence).” Even if they refuse, you have done your part and aired the issue. Alternatively, instead of confronting them in person, you can write a note. This has cathartic benefits even if you decide not to send it.
An effective way to induce the other party to apologize is to take responsibility for the part, however small, that you did wrong. When you ask forgiveness for your part, the other party will frequently ask forgiveness for theirs. Not only do you clean your slate and receive the apology you deserve, you also do an act of kindness by helping them apologize.
Many who would like to ask for forgiveness are too embarrassed or afraid they will be rebuffed. If you are willing to forgive them if they apologize, but will not if they don’t, then you are withholding forgiveness not because they harmed you, rather, because they lack the courage to apologize. In addition, if you decided not to speak to the person, he or she may not even realize your feelings were hurt. Instead of waiting for an apology which may never come, use the power of imagery.
Close your eyes, relax your body and visualize telling the person who hurt you what he did, how it made you feel and how you were affected. Then imagine him expressing remorse and sincerely asking for forgiveness; if you are ready, forgive him.
Putting the Tools to Work
Make a list of the people toward whom you feel resentment; include even close friends and family members, if you feel they wronged you in some way. Start with the mildest hurt and ask God to help you forgive them and remove the bitterness from your heart.
Then, use any or all of the strategies. Afterwards, if you are ready, picture the person’s face and say out loud, “___(his/her name), I forgive you.” Now move on to the next person on your list. You can always return to an earlier hurt later to see if you can let go of even more resentment and bitterness.
Learning to forgive takes practice. In the beginning you may find the process challenging, but over time you will be able to let go of resentment with greater ease. By making forgiving others a priority, we eventually free ourselves from the poison of hatred, leaving more room in our hearts for love and joy. Then we will say to God, “Father, we’ve stopped fighting; we’ve removed the hatred from our hearts. Can we please come home now?”
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