Thursday, August 16, 2012

Asking Forgiveness: A Crash Course

A version of this article appeared on OU.org and the Shabbat Shalom Newsletter

Ever tell a child to apologize? Frequently, he or she would rather do almost anything else than ask for forgiveness. As adults, it’s not much different. Why?

Requesting forgiveness means admitting we were wrong. This is a blow to our egos, which think we never make mistakes. But we can shrink our ego down to size by increasing humility.

One way to enhance humility is to remind yourself daily of the following: Everything I am and have accomplished is due to the help of my Creator. My successes and achievements come only from Him. He is my strength and with Him, I can do anything. Without Him, I can do nothing and would be totally helpless. In truth, without God, I am nothing; I wouldn’t even exist.

When we acknowledge our human frailty, we can then be on the lookout for our inevitable mistakes and immediately correct them.

There are numerous ways we may harm others: Speaking negatively about them, making hurtful comments, ignoring or mistreating them, causing financial harm or withholding items or monies due.

The above list encompasses common behavior. Yet, many times we do not realize we have committed them. People frequently think they have done the right thing, even when they are grossly mistaken. As the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” A frightening thought – if we often do not realize we harmed someone, emotionally or financially, how can we be certain we are not walking on that road?

1) Be brutally honest. When we’re honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we’re very good at rationalizing sinful behavior and fooling ourselves into thinking that what we’re doing is technically OK. Ask, “Even if what I’m doing is within the letter of the law, am I doing, “…What is straight and what is good in the eyes of God...?(Deuteronomy 6:18)”

The more twisted and self-serving the logic needed to justify our behavior, the greater the chances that it’s evil in God’s eyes. In the end, His view is the only one that matters.

Ask, “What do I want more: To be right or to do right? Am I willing to admit I was wrong in order to do what is right?” When you are ready to do the right thing – your Creator’s will – at all costs and ask Him for assistance, He will help you achieve your goal.

2) Learn the law. Study the Torah’s guidelines for interpersonal behavior. One resource is Rabbi Yitzchok Silver’s fascinating book, The Code of Jewish Conduct: The laws of interpersonal relationships. Rabbi Silver recently authored Money in Halachah: A Comprehensive Guide to Business and Domestic Money-related Halachos.

Another important work on monetary laws is Halachos of Other Peoples’ Money by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner. The title is telling; a common error which leads many to violate the prohibition of stealing is the assumption that “I’m not a thief; the money in question is mine.” When discussing a situation with a knowledgeable rabbi we may discover, in more scenarios than we expect, that God says, “The money in question is not yours, it is other peoples’ money.”

3) Ask your rabbi. Even when you think you know the law, in matters where you have a vested interest, it is important to consult with rabbi for an unbiased perspective. In general, if someone has made a claim against you, financial or emotional, or if you caused someone distress in any way, either apologize and make amends, or go to a rabbi well versed in Torah law and find out how the Torah guides one to act. If possible, invite the other party to present their side, as you have a biased view of the situation.

Quick primer on asking forgiveness

Motivate yourself: Asking someone for forgiveness requires sufficient motivation. To start, realize that God does not overlook the harm done to one of His children. If we do not right the wrongs we have committed – as best we can – those sins will come back to haunt us.

In addition, when you harm one of God’s children, you become estranged from your Father in Heaven; you may find that your prayers, observances and Torah study have cooled off. By repairing your relationship with God’s children, you repair your relationship with God.

Lastly, think of the sense of freedom that comes with being forgiven, when the heavy weight of harm done to others has been lifted from your shoulders.

Some people do not want to apologize, because they are concerned they will repeat the same mistake and make asking for forgiveness meaningless. Apologizing is not the equivalent of taking an oath never to repeat the offense. When we say we are sorry, we are saying that we feel badly that we have caused another distress, that we will make it up to them, if appropriate, and that we will make a concrete effort to do better in the future.

Make a list of those whom you’ve harmed: Consider friends, family members, neighbors, fellow congregants, business associates, former classmates, individuals with whom you are not on good terms and those with whom you have had a conflict (even when we were right, frequently, we may have needlessly hurt other people). Consult with your rabbi if you are unsure about the need to apologize to someone or if you think it will only make matters worse.

Commit to approaching the person: Once you have compiled your list, choose the person you think will be easiest to make amends with and pick a date on which you commit to call, write, or ask for forgiveness. Alternatively, if you are feeling courageous, you may want to approach first the person you hurt most. Pace yourself, focusing on one or more people each week, until you have cleared your slate.

During the exchange: When you ask for forgiveness, be sincere and to the point. Acknowledge what you did and that it was wrong. Do not give excuses or minimize what happened. Express regret and make amends, when applicable. Use phrases such as: “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “Please forgive me,” or, “Do you forgive me?” Most of the time, people will graciously forgive us if we show sincere regret and a desire to make things right.

Sometimes, people are dismissive and respond to our request for forgiveness with, “Don’t worry about it,” “It’s OK,” or, “It was no big deal.” In that case, it would be best to say to them, “To get the most closure, I’d appreciate it if you said, ‘I forgive you.’”

The High Holiday season is an especially good time to ask for forgiveness. People are more likely to be forgiving then and the holidays provide a natural lead-in for the conversation, e.g., “Rosh Hashanah is around the corner and I would like to begin the New Year with a clean slate. I feel badly about the time I….”

Afterward: If they forgive you, thank them; they have just given you a gift. In the future, do the best you can to prevent a recurrence of the wrong that was done, and go out of your way to be helpful to them.

Once you have secured a person’s forgiveness, put a check mark next to his or her name and move on to the next person.

Repairing the world one person at a time

Each individual is precious and is compared to an entire world (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). Therefore, when we harm someone, it is as if we have damaged the whole world. When we make amends and request forgiveness, it is as if we have repaired the entire world.

The world is in dire need of repair; many are hurting from wrongs done to them. From whom will you request forgiveness?

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