Stephanie D. Kolin | September 16, 2016
I was walking down Culver Boulevard in Los Angeles on a gorgeous day some years back.
I had a little skip in my step—it was early spring and in the spring, LA turns completely purple with shockingly beautiful Jacaranda trees. I was taking stock of the moment when my heart jumped into my throat. I thought I had caught a glimpse of someone who had broken my heart not once, but, foolish me, twice before.
I had a special dark place in my heart where I kept this person for the pain he had caused me. And even though I knew he was sorry, and I knew it hadn’t been from a place of cruelty, I was not ready to be civil or friendly.
So why share with you such an unflattering moment in my life? Oh, by the way, it wasn’t even him, which I realized after having maturely ducked behind a shockingly beautiful jacaranda tree. So again, why share this story?
Because we are in the month of Elul and whether the reflection is pleasing or not, this is the month where we hold up the most honest mirror to ourselves and to our deeds. We turn our hearts toward asking forgiveness from those we’ve harmed and toward granting it to those who have hurt us. The work is hard; it lays us bare. Perhaps you have someone to apologize to this year, but you’re wavering—maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Perhaps forgiveness is yours to give this year and you are wondering if you might choose “nope.”
So I share this story because I came to realize that I was, in fact, withholding forgiveness. Or in more common language: I was holding a grudge. And this thing—this very human thing, the grudge, is a critical aspect to understand when we explore whether or not we have the strength to forgive. In this moment, I could not figure out how to let go of my pain, my anger—I’m sure humiliation was mixed in there somewhere. Forgiveness, here from behind my tree, was very, very hard.
In fact, our tradition makes space for the grudge. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, explains that if a person hurts or wrongs his friend, he must apologize, mean it, and change his behavior. If, however, his friend doesn’t want to forgive, he is required to apologize two more times, for a total of three times. If, after that, his friend still refuses to accept his apology, legally, he can stop trying to gain forgiveness, and now it is his friend who is in the wrong.
Our tradition sets up these extensive systems because while the laws of fasting and the days of praying are all critically important to this time of year, nothing is more important than righting our strained or broken relationships. And nothing is harder to achieve.
Our Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, has one of the most interesting examples of this challenge—this human-nature thing where we find ourselves unable to really forgive.
The text reads like so: No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted to the congregation of Adonai. Why? Because, it says, they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt and because they hired Balaam to curse you.
Well then—the grudge to end all grudges. Generations ago, the Moabites didn’t bring you a sandwich and so they will forever be our enemies and never be allowed to be a part of us! No forgiveness, no way to make it up to us, no way to make it right. Ever.
However. Does anyone know where this commandment gets contradicted? Yes! Ruth is a Moabite woman! Ruth, the quintessential, honorable convert. Ruth, who follows Naomi with loyalty—your people will be my people, your God, my God—that Ruth.
Who then marries Boaz. And together, they birth Obed, who is father to Jesse. And Jesse fathers David—King David, who is the progenitor of the Messiah, traditionally speaking the one who is supposed to bring about a world of peace, justice, harmony, and compassion. Because a Moabite woman was permitted to get out from under the weight of our collective grudge and join our people.
Both options, the grudge and the forgiveness, are legitimately in our texts and in our laws. One ends in an eternal standoff with clenched fists and a perpetual snarl. The other ends quite differently. For me, I find it instructive that the storyline that includes a letting go of past hurt ends with a direct line to the Messianic Age, a healing of universal fracture, a repair of hearts and worlds. I don’t know, I guess I’m just into that kind of thing.
It is so human to find it difficult to let go of our hurt—to move on, not just in perfunctory words, but truly, so we don’t jump or feel our blood boil or offer a cold shoulder when we see this person. It’s true that some hurts, like abuse, may not be worthy of our forgiveness. But is there someone in your life—whether they have articulated words of apology or whether you just know they are so deeply sorry—is there someone hoping you will unclench your fists?
As for me, I didn’t like my reflection behind that tree. So I found some courage and I reached out and I said, “I forgive you. I know you didn’t mean it. I know we were both at fault in some ways.” It was scary. But I don’t jump anymore; I don’t feel angry or hurt or humiliated. I feel whole. I am far from great at this stuff, but I’m working on it—I know we all are.
This year, what will it take for you to forgive? To begin to heal yourself and maybe even restore a broken relationship? And what compassion, what peace—of messianic proportions—might be waiting for you, if you could find your way to forgiveness this year?
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