|What is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgave another? When Joseph forgave his brothers. (Don’t mistake forgiveness with appeasement of anger, a concept found in ancient Greek literature.)|
From Judaism, a new form of morality was born. Most other systems are ethics of shame; when a person does wrong (s)he is, as it were, stained, marked, or defiled. In Jewish consciousness, what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin. The person retains his or her fundamental worth (“the soul you gave me is pure,” from Morning Prayers). The act has to be put right and that is why in Judaism there are processes of repentance, atonement and forgiveness.
This idea is essential for understanding Yom Kippur because forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognize that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it; we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation simply did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. Greece was a shame-and-honor culture, but Judaism is a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are free will and choice. (The idea of forgiveness was then adopted by Christianity, making the Judeo-Christian ethic the primary vehicle of forgiveness in history.)
Repentance and forgiveness are not just two ideas among many. They transformed the human situation. For the first time, repentance established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent, I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. Forgiveness liberates me from a past filled with bad choices and grants me the chance to undo what has been done. It also allows me to let go of the monster in my mind called resentment, an unpleasant demon that causes me tension and anxiety.
This Sunday will be Yom Kippur and even though letting go of resentment is like putting down a 200-pound weight, there’s a benefit to forgiving those who have hurt you. The best way to gain forgiveness for your own misdeeds is to forgive those who have sinned against you. Resentment is not only a weight on your back, it’s a partition between you and G-d; a defect preventing you from being forgiven.
The Talmud asks: “Whose transgression does G-d overlook? One who overlooks a transgression done against him.” Ramchal (1707-1746; Italy and Israel)explains that G-d isn’t applying His trait of kindness when he forgives someone (due to His overlooking the person’s transgression). Rather, G-d judges the person according to the strict letter of the law, but when someone transcends his personal feelings and resentments and finds within himself the capacity to forgive, he deserves, according to the strict letter of the law, to have G-d transcend His usual judgment and overlook his transgression. When people get sick or have friends or relatives who do, they start bargaining with G-d. “If I, he, she, they, get better I promise to…” but they don’t need to bargain. The best way to be viewed favorably by G-d is to overcome your negativity and character defects. The ability to forgive is one of the greatest things we possess; it allows us to appear favorably before G-d.
Your brain is the most priceless piece of real estate you own. When you harbor and nurse resentments, you allow people to live there—in your head—rent free. Yom Kippur is in a few days; it’s the time one’s final judgment is sealed. Right now is the time to ask G-d for help to release the unwanted tenants from your brain. It might be your husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother, boss, ex, former teacher, social worker, or anyone else who irks you, and continues to reside in your mind. You haven’t been able to evict these unwanted tenants with your own devices, now is the time to realize that the One who Created you has the ability to help expel these unwanted guests.
This is a once a year opportunity and although one can pray and connect with G-d throughout the year, right now He is here. Imagine all the hoops one must go through to get an audience with a King. But what if the King came into your village so that he could mingle with the people and ask them how he can help them; wouldn’t one be foolish not exploit the opportunity? After Yom Kippur until next year, it will take more mitzvot and merits to get through to the King of Kings. Let’s seize this unique opportunity to come close to Avinu Malcheinu, our Father, our King.
(Sources: Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17a: The Birth of Forgiveness, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Mesillas Yesharim chap. 19)
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