A congregant once asked me, “Rabbi, I sinned and want to know what I can do to make amends.”
Eager to help the penitent man do teshuva (repent), the rabbi asked, “What was the sin?”
“It only happened once,” he replied. “I didn’t wash my hands and recite the blessing before eating bread.”
“Well, if it really only happened once,” the rabbi counseled,” that’s not so terrible. But tell me, why did you neglect to wash your hands and recite the blessing?”
“Uh, I felt awkward doing it. You see, I was in a non-kosher restaurant.”
The rabbi raised his eyebrows and further inquired, “And why were you in a non-kosher restaurant?”
“I had no choice. All the kosher restaurants were closed.”
“And why were all the kosher restaurants closed?”
“Because it was Yom Kippur!”
Forgiveness is an important theme in today’s Torah reading where we have Father Jacob’s dramatic encounter with his brother Esav after more than 20 years of estrangement. Esav is coming with 400 foot-soldiers and Jacob is terrified. When they had last seen each other, Jacob had stolen his brother’s 1st-born blessing and Esav threatened to murder him. What happens? The Torah (Genesis 33:4) tells us: “Esav ran to greet him [Jacob], embraced him and fell on his neck; he kissed him, and they wept.” After more than 20 years of holding in this enmity, they embrace, kiss, and weep. They’ll never become best friends, but at least the estrangement is over. And as the parsha ends, Jacob and Esav come together as loving children to bury their father.
One of the biggest issues I deal with as a rabbi is family estrangement. Brothers or sisters don’t speak with each other; parents no longer see their children; and children cut themselves off from their parents. Sometimes it’s necessary. No one is obligated to remain in a relationship with someone who’s destructive or abusive. But such estrangement is always sad. I often hear about a family estrangement before a simcha such as a Bar/Bat mitzvah or wedding. I always ask, “Wouldn’t this be a good time to try to patch things up and rebuild the relationship?” Sometimes there can be new beginnings.
Often such rebuilding requires forgiveness. The Torah never says whether Esav forgave Jacob for stealing his blessing or whether Jacob forgave Esau for threatening to kill him. But forgiveness is at the heart of breaking down family estrangement. Christianity sees forgiveness as the highest form of love, as their Lord’s Prayer says: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Judaism has a somewhat different approach. Forgiveness becomes a religious obligation only if someone has done teshuva (repentance) and asked for forgiveness. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that if a person comes once asking for forgiveness, we can turn the person down. If he/she comes twice, we can still turn them down. But if a person comes a 3rd time and we turn them down, it’s no longer their sin but ours. We’re obligated to forgive.
On the other hand, forgiveness becomes a religious prohibition if someone else was the victim. As a rabbi I’m often asked, “Why can’t you Jews forgive the Nazis?” My answer is always the same. The Talmud (Yoma 8:9) teaches that only the victims can forgive and the 6 million victims of the Holocaust are gone. In his book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal tells the powerful story of a concentration camp inmate summoned from his labor detail to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The soldier, his hands soaked with Jewish blood and his conscience torturing him in his last moments on Earth, seeks out a Jew to whom he could confess and beg for forgiveness—before dying—for all the Jews he killed. Instead of forgiving him, the Jew is silent and leaves the room. No, only the victims can forgive. In a family situation, if a family member has been abusive, the only one who can forgive is the victim of abuse.
Forgiveness is neither an obligation nor a prohibition in other situations. If someone has wronged someone else and never apologized—although not an obligation—it’s still worthwhile to forgive. Holding on to anger is never healthy. Holding on to anger at someone else is like holding on to a hot coal hoping someone else will be burned. In the end we wind up burning ourselves. To forgive is to let go of that hot coal.
Someone once suggested this forgiveness exercise. Take a potato and write on it the name of a person who has hurt you. Do this for everyone who has raised your ire and never received your forgiveness. When you’ve finished, gather all your potatoes together and place them in a sack. Keep this sack next to you at all times: Take it to work. Take it to lunch. Take it everywhere you go. And always have it with you at home.
How long would it take for you to grow tired of carrying this burden around? How long would it take for your potatoes to sprout into other things, fester and smell? Wouldn’t it be nice to be free from the weight, stench and constant reminder of the hurt, disappointment, heartache and anger?
By hanging on to things that are unpleasant, we create more anguish for ourselves. When you are able to forgive someone, you free yourself from an oppressive load of negativity. Forgiveness allows you to create some peace in your life.
My favorite insight for forgiveness is brought by the Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Deah 240:39), one of the earliest treatise on Jewish law. When you are contemplating forgiveness it advises us to ask: “Did the person wrong you because they were evil? Or did the person wrong you because they were weak?” If someone hurt someone else out of human weakness, perhaps that gives one an opening to forgive. So let us learn from Jacob and Esav and perhaps our estranged family members can embrace once again. Amen!