We Jews are big on forgiveness. Our holiest days of the year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—are dedicated to it. In our weekday Amida prayer, 3 times a day we ask Gd to forgive us. And, as our tradition teaches, Gd does not forgive us from above until we forgive each other here on earth. But experience shows that sometimes it’s easier said than done.
Sometimes forgiving is relatively easy—like forgiving someone who missed an appointment or forgot to call you on your birthday. But what about the forgiving of the big hurts of life—like someone who deceived your or cheated you or abused you or has brought immense suffering to someone you care about? How does one forgive? How can one forgive?
At the end of today’s Torah portion we have a remarkable passage about forgiveness. After the funeral and shiva observance for their father Jacob, his sons become terrified that their brother Joseph will take revenge upon them and so they tell Joseph (Gen. 50:16-21): “Your father gave orders before his death saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “Please forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil.”’”
When Joseph heard those words he wept, realizing that his father Jacob had never said this. When his brothers flung themselves before him saying, “We are ready to be your slaves,” he understood the pain and fear his brothers were feeling. In an act of unbelievable compassion he tells them, “Fear not, for am I instead of Gd? Although you intended me harm, Gd intended it for good…in order to save many lives. So fear not—I will sustain you and your children.” And the Torah adds these remarkable words: “[Joseph] comforted them and spoke to their heart.”
How could he be so forgiving? His brothers tried to kill him and then sold him into slavery—throwing him out of the family and keeping him from his father and close brother Benjamin for over 20 years? No wonder the sages call him Yosef Hatzadik, Joseph the Righteous one.
Now most of us might be able to muster up the courage to ask for forgiveness for something we have done. But how do we respond when someone asks forgiveness of us? Can we forget? Can we forgive? Must we forgive? Sometimes we like to nurse our grudges. Oh, it can feel good to hate. But in the end it just poisons our souls, and consumes us. Do we want to give those who have hurt us that kind of power over us?
Lewis Smedes, a professor of theology and ethics, wrote a book, Forgive & Forget, which deals with how to respond to the hurts that we don’t deserve and how to heal those hurts. He hits the nail right on the head when he wrote: “Forgiving is love’s toughest work, and love’s biggest risk…Few of us have the heart for forgiving while we are dangling from one end of a bond broken by somebody else’s cruelty.” However, Smedes reminds us, “People do forgive—ordinary people, not saints—and they do heal themselves of terrible pain.”
Dr. Smede illustrates with the following legend:
In a small village, there lived a baker who seemed to be so upright, so righteous, so good. He was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him, so the people of the village preferred to keep their distance from him. His wife did not keep people at bay with righteousness. Instead, she seemed to invite people to get close to her. The baker’s wife respected her righteous husband and loved him, as much as he allowed her to love him. But her heart ached for something more than his worthy righteousness….
One morning, having worked since dawn to knead the dough for his ovens, the baker came home [early] and found a stranger in his [home]…with his wife. [Rumours of] adultery soon became the talk of the…town. Everyone assumed that the righteous baker would throw his wife out of the house, but he kept her as his wife, saying that he forgave her as the Good Book said he should.
But in his heart of hearts, he could never forgive her for bringing shame to his name. When the baker thought of his wife, he thought angry thoughts. Though he kept her as his wife and in his home, he hated her for betraying him. He only pretended to forgive her so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.
But in heaven the baker’s duplicity was recognized. Each time he would feel a secret hate for his wife, an angel came to him and dropped a small pebble…into the baker’s heart. And each time a pebble was dropped, the baker felt a stab of pain…And so he hated her even more. His hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate.
The pebbles multiplied, and the baker’s heart grew heavy with the weight of those pebbles. His heart grew so heavy that the top half of his body bent forward and he had to strain his neck upward to see straight ahead. Weary with hurt, he wished he were dead.
One night the angel with the pebbles told the baker how he could be healed of his heart. The remedy was the miracle of the “magic eyes.” He would need eyes that could look back to the beginning of his hurt, and to see his wife, not as a woman who betrayed him, but as a weak woman who needed him. Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could he heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.
The baker protested. “Nothing can change the past. She is guilty, not even an angel can change that.”
The angel responded to the baker that he was right. “You can’t change the past. You can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can only heal it with the vision of the magic eyes.”
The baker asked how he could get the magic eyes. “Just ask,” said the angel, “and they will be given to you, and each time you see your wife through the new eyes, one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”
It took the baker some time to ask because he had grown to love his hatred. But his pain finally drove him to look for the magic eyes. He asked and the angel gave. And soon the baker’s wife began to change in front of the baker’s eyes. He began to see her as a woman in need, as a woman who loved him rather than a wicked woman who betrayed him.
The angel kept the promise. One by one the pebbles were lifted from the baker’s heart; though it took a long time to take them all away. Gradually the baker’s heart grew lighter and he began to stand straight again. He invited his wife to come into his heart again, and together they began a journey into their 2nd season of humble joy.
Isn’t this a powerful story? Don’t we all need those magic eyes? Do we want to live our lives as victims? Yes, you may be right in feeling that you were wronged, but only when we forgive can we begin to heal. How do we forgive? Like the baker, we must find a way to separate the deed from the doer. Yes, we have arrows in our hearts that hurt. But those who have put those arrows there also have arrows in their hearts that may have caused them to behave that way. When we don’t forgive, our hearts grow heavy with pebbles, making those arrows much harder to remove.
Here’s the secret of forgiveness. When you try to understand the wounds of those that have hurt you…when you try to understand what in their life brought them to behave that way…then the pebbles begin to fall away and only then can you begin to remove the arrows from your heart. Unless we want to continue to feel pain, we need to work at forgiving—not for the sake of the one who hurt us, but for our own sake.
It’s not easy to forgive. I know that. How do you let go of a grudge? How do you find the courage to look beyond your pain into the pain of the one who has hurt you? It’s easier said than done. Let me offer you one suggestion from our tradition. The Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria—16th century founder of most of today’s Kabbalistic thought—lived for less than 40 years, but in that brief lifetime, he transformed Judaism. Among the many things he did was to create a new Siddur, one that is used to this day by Chassidim and others.
The Evening Maariv Service begins with the verse from the Psalms (78:38): V’hu rachum y’chapeyr avon v’lo yashchit, “May Gd, in His mercy, forgive sin and not destroy.” The Ari felt that he could not in good conscience ask Gd to forgive him until and unless he was willing to forgive others. And so he prefaced that verse with this additional sentence: Hareyni mocheyl l’chol adam shechata negdi hayom, “I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me today.”
The Torah (Leviticus 19:17) warns us: Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” If you’ve ever carried around anger, you know how truly wise this Torah teaching is. Let me suggest that you say these simple words, “I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me this day,” at the end of every single day—not because the person who has hurt you deserves to be forgiven. Maybe he/she does and maybe he/she doesn’t…But because that person who has hurt you does not deserve the power to make you bitter and angry. It’s not good for the “liver” in both senses of the word—the one who lives, and that part of the body! And so this Shabbos, as we read the amazing story of Joseph’s forgiveness, let us all say: “I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me this day.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis