• Rabbi Ariel Tal

Forgiveness: Why You Should Always Forgive. An Interview with Nathan Phillips

There are two words that are extremely difficult to say for many people - “I’m Sorry”. However, the three words that are even harder to say are - “I forgive you”. Forgiveness is integral to the Teshuva process; We ask Hashem for forgiveness for our sins and misgivings, and it is a time to make amends with people who we may have hurt as well. Maimonides in his Halachi work, Mishne Torah in the Laws of Teshuva (2:10) rules that forgiveness, or mechila, is imperative to the Teshuva process:

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not grant pardon. One should rather easily forgive and not easily grow angry, and when the one who caused harm requests forgiveness he should forgive with a full heart and generous spirit. Even if he caused him distress and committed many offenses against him, he shall not exact revenge or bear a pain. This is the way of the Israelite people and their principled heart. But the idolaters…are not like this; rather, they preserve their wrath eternally. It thus says (Shemuel II 21:2) with regard to the Givonites because they did not forgive or grant pardon, "and the Givonites were not among the Israelites."

Upon analysis, Maimonides’ clearly believes in the following four points:

  1. A person who doesn’t grant pardon or forgive is considered to be cruel.

  2. Ideally, one should forgive easily and not grow angry. Holding on to anger is the antithesis of granting forgiveness.

  3. One should forgive the person who harmed them regardless of how much they caused them harm or grief, and even if the person repeatedly committed offenses against them.

  4. Idolaters differ from Israelites in the fact that they hold on to a grudge and do not forgive.

On the face of things, this seems to be harsh and possibly counterintuitive. Why should we forgive someone who is a repeat one who caused harm? Isn’t it harsh to label one who doesn’t forgive as cruel - shouldn’t that be reserved for the one who caused harm and not the victim? And what is the correlation between idolatry and bearing a pain?

The source for Maimonides’ ruling in the Laws of Teshuva is from Avraham, who gave forgiveness to Avimelech, the Philistine king when Avimelech took Sarah away from Avraham. Avimelech immediately became inflicted by God as a punishment for his crime, and Avraham immediately prayed to God on Avimelech’s behalf, indicating his wholehearted pardon for the king’s crime. Furthermore, the Talmud in Masechet Yoma (87b) records Rava’s statements that somebody accustomed being ma’avir al midotva - or “passing over his retaliations” - will be worthy of similar measures of forgiveness from God. It is important to emphasize that Maimonides is referring to a situation where the one who caused harm asked for forgiveness, and only then is one obligated to forgive, whereas a situation where the one who caused harm did not yet ask for forgiveness, there is no such obligation to forgive. But, is it really best to bear a pain in that case?

In order to understand the concept of forgiveness, I decided to have a chat with Nathan. Nathan, as many of you know, is a clinical psychologist who has worked with clients who struggle in many different areas and who may have experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. He has also worked with clients who have offended, who have acted in sexually inappropriate ways, or have behaved in other ways they are not proud of. In his own words, which were inspired by Ben Sedley, “I work with people who feel stuck, helping them to figure out both what matters to them and how they can move in a direction aligned with their values.” (phillipspsychology.co.nz).

I had a long conversation with Nathan about forgiveness. Nathan doesn’t like using that term, rather uses the term “understanding”. Giving forgiveness to someone else begins with understanding where the one who caused harm is coming from. For example, if the one who caused harm has committed abuse it may stem from the one who caused harm being abused in their own lives. This does not in any way absolve the one who caused harm from consequence or punishment, and they should serve whatever sentence they are handed. However, the one who caused harm’s consequence is not directly related to the victim forgiving them. Let’s look at it from the negative standpoint - what if the victim never forgives the one who caused harm, and holds on to the pain for the rest of their lives? How will that serve the victim? It won’t bring justice - that’s the job of the courts and the police. Usually, that will only result in the victim holding on to anger, resentment, grief, and other burdening feelings and thoughts. That negativity can directly affect the victim’s life by causing them to have trouble sleeping, present physical symptoms of stress, anger or grief, affect decision making, and can create a burden the victim constantly carries with them. By granting forgiveness to the one who caused harm, however harmful their actions may have been, the victim actually does a service to him/herself by unburdening themselves from that negativity. In other words, forgiveness is an internal work, and not a way to cause justice or affect change to others. This concept of forgiveness can in some cases help the victim get “unstuck”, and move on with their lives without carrying the weight of what happened to them.

Taking it one step further, Nathan told me that one can forgive another not for themselves, rather for the other person to move forward. Let’s say that someone said something insensitive to you, got backlash for it and feels really bad about what they said. Maybe even the person has suffered social consequences for their insensitive comments. It may not have affected you in a negative way, but you didn’t appreciate the comments, at the very least. By letting the other person know that you have forgiven them for their insensitive comments you are giving them a second chance, it can help release a tremendous burden for them, as they already have shown signs of regret or remorse.

Why is it so difficult to forgive? If it’s as simple as stated above, why doesn’t everyone forgive? Surely, it would be a disservice to oneself not to forgive, and therefore granting pardon is the logical conclusion in all or at least the vast majority of cases. However, life is not that simple. People have the tendency to hold on to pain, anger and resentment as a way of lashing back at the one who caused harm, and as a protection mechanism for themselves, according to Nathan. It all comes back to understanding and intent - Kavanah. What was the other person’s intent? Were they misguided? Did they have full intention to harm, and even if they did what is the back story or motivation behind it?

There are times in therapy where, when therapeutically appropriate, Nathan might invite a client to look at a situation from a different perspective and to think more about the background or the experiences of the person who harmed them. If you can see that they committed their offense because of their upbringing, poor education, or out of survival, then maybe we can have in our hearts the capacity to understand them. This can help with feeling able to forgive. The other challenge is helping people who have committed crimes or harmed others to forgive themselves. That is often a more difficult obstacle to overcome.

We all have “The Human Condition”. We all make mistakes. In fact, there is a famous verse in Psalms: “There is no righteous person in this world that will do good and not sin”. Making mistakes is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and Judaism embraces that concept. That is why there is the process of Teshuva - returning to the source. We can always improve. One aspect of teshuva is feeling regret, asking for forgiveness and changing one’s actions for the future. Arguably, the hardest step to Teshuva is granting forgiveness to the person who committed the offense or sin in the first place.

Forgiving someone is extremely difficult. It goes against human nature for self-preservation, holding people accountable, and not letting go. Maimonides ruled that in a case where the perpetrator or one who caused harm asks for forgiveness, then the victim or subject must forgive no matter how harmful the act was. Forgiving does not detract from the one who caused harm’s punishment or accountability, rather it is a refinement of one’s attributes and an internal process. Yet, if we define forgiveness as understanding, maybe we can find it in ourselves to forgive even the one who caused harm who do not ask for forgiveness, as challenging as that may be. Do we want to live with the anger, rage, or burden of the person’s wrongdoing, whether it was done to us or someone we love? Can we rise to the challenge to make space for the feelings that stop us from living in accordance with our values? How would it serve us to hang on to the negativity versus letting it go and giving the other person our full compassion? And, lastly, can we find it within ourselves to forgive ourselves for the wrongdoings that we did, whether we committed those wrongdoings to ourselves, our loved ones or others? Forgiveness may be the hardest aspect of Teshuva, and if accomplished, it can unlock a newfound perspective on life and literally be a life-changing experience. The good part is, that it is completely dependent on ourselves.

Shana Tova!

Rabbi Ariel Tal

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