Forgiveness is a mystery that eludes us. One can easily (yet tragically) go a lifetime without ever encountering it in its true form.
We may relate to it flippantly: apologizing without really meaning it, or telling people we forgive them while sweeping piles of harbored resentment under the rug.
Or, fathoming just how serious of a thing it is, we can fall prey to cynicism, retreating into a position that believes forgiveness to be an archaic ritual that isn’t really possible to do in a meaningful way, pointing ironically at those above-mentioned people who say “sorry!” amidst nervous giggles, or say they “forgive you” when they are simply trying their best to forget the hurt you caused them.
Is forgiveness a myth we have all bought into?
If it is a real thing, how does it work? How is it more than just forgetting?
If someone wrongs you — hurts you — how can you ever really forgive them? If they say they “didn’t mean to hurt you,” does that make it better? How can their temporary obliviousness to your feelings make you feel better?
Just to appreciate how weighty of a matter forgiveness is, take a moment to think: how many times in your life has someone really and sincerely asked for forgiveness from you with such potency that as a result, you released all pain and frustration from your heart, bringing you as close if not closer to the person than before the fight?
Probably not too many times.
How many times have you sincerely asked for forgiveness? Sincerely tried to feel the pain you caused someone else? Genuinely heard them out to see it from their perspective and recognized that you were wrong?
Probably not too many times.
The real deal is hard to do and hard to come by, but this is, of course, what makes it so precious.
We must be careful to not cheapen it. As surely as the “thank you” we use for the person who holds the elevator for us can’t be the same “thank you” reserved for our parents, so too, the “sorry” we use for accidentally stepping on someone’s heel on the sidewalk can’t be the same as the “sorry” owed to a friend whose feelings we have deeply injured.
If it is to be more than just lip service, from where do we find it within ourselves to ask for forgiveness, and from where do we find it within ourselves to forgive?
True forgiveness is a matter of identity.
Our most common identity is a confused identity. We have flashes of inspiration, but live most of the time in a grey zone of ambiguity.
However, all of us have within us another identity that is pure and pristine. As such, it is much more of an identity than the common grey one. Its edges stand bright and defined against the background of grey. There, who we are would never callously cause anyone pain, because there, who we are is wholly aware, conscious and sensitive to others. There, we know full-well that we fail others only when we relax into the grey of our unconscientious and uncaring selves, and hence our lives of dual identities, and our lifelong battles to be the best-version-of-ourselves that we know ourselves to be.
To the degree to which we haven’t clearly and affirmatively identified with that inner identity, we inevitably feel a vague sense of guilt for our mistakes that have caused pain to others, which invariably produces grey, uninspired requests for forgiveness (if any) to quell our own feelings of guilt rather than reach the hearts of those we’ve hurt.
If, however, we claim ownership for our good intentions — if we identify with them as sincere, as only we can in our heart of hearts — then, and only then, our outer, dumber, insensitive selves are shed, and we can ask for forgiveness with a full heart. The person who hurt someone else was never the person I consciously wanted to be. It is at this point that we can come to our senses, see the situation from the other person’s perspective, and admit our fault. And the more we get in touch with this dichotomy and our own true self, the more we will be open to forgive others who ask us for forgiveness from their true selves.
Leading up to Rosh Hashana, the gates to our true selves are wide open. We just need the courage to jump the gap and identify with who we most truly are. From that vantage point, we will look back at past mistakes with new perspective, and feel the pain of others that we are responsible for with renewed vibrancy. Once there, gates upon gates open up for the sincere phone calls, hand-written letters, emails, and personal conversations that we owe to those around us, whom we pray will receive our words with similarly open hearts.
Hashem should open wide all of our hearts to find our true and good identities, give us the courage to boldly leap and be the people we were born to be, open the hearts of those whose hurt we seek to mend, and similarly allow us to recognize the true and good identities of all those around us who are praying for our forgiveness for their mistakes.
(Rabbi Jack Cohen served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)