On Forgiveness
by Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb

It’s Erev Yom Kippur in the afternoon.  The religious neighborhood in which I live is teeming with sincere, enthusiastic folks who take their Torah seriously and pursue Mitzvahs with passion.  Children are laughing as they sport their finest Yom Tov clothes with crocs or sneakers on their feet. Mothers are sealing kreplach, spooning them carefully into steaming, aromatic pots of chicken soup. Men are running to and fro, to mincha and the mikveh, filled with awe and anticipation.

The message of forgiveness is in everybody’s minds and hearts. Forgive me Hashem, for I have done wrong. Everyone is on a program, and we’re all in it together, getting ready for the big day. It’s very intense. I set the table with a clean white cloth and take the kugel from the oven.

A powerful, meaningful moment, as we prepare for 26 hours of stirring soul-connection with His Essence.  It embodies all that’s wonderful and uplifting about Yiddishkeit, about a lifetime of working to transform ourselves into the best we can be.  How fortunate we are to be players in this profoundly meaningful drama year after year…

But wait.  Look again.  Something is amiss.  It seems some of the actors must have picked up the wrong script!!

 A young father knocks on my door and asks if he can come in for a moment to bless his children. His four golden haired daughters and their Mom are among the guests at our table.  It is not his day to be with the kids; Mom and Dad are in the throes of divorce, and the space between them seethes with unarticulated rage. The girls hardly speak to him as his blesses each one. He leaves with tears in his eyes.

Another guest arrives, a young mother. Her children and husband are at home. They don’t want to see her anymore. She had suffered from undiagnosed post-partum depression, which went untreated and before long became psychosis. Her husband didn’t get it. He blamed her instead of helping her, hated her instead of understanding her. He calls her terrible names in front of their children because she disappointed him. He feels he has been given a raw deal.

 An older man is text-messaging his grown daughter with the traditional blessing for children.
“Y’simeich elokim k’ Sara, Rivka, Rochel v’Leah…” He called her first but she didn’t answer. He has called her three or four times since he returned from shacharis. She sees his number on caller ID and is too busy to pick up the phone.

A friend calls from down the street. Her son Mendy is coming to town for yom tov, but won’t sleep in her house. After his father had passed away, Mom remarried a man of whom he didn’t approve.  Could Mendy please stay with us instead?

Across town, a well-respected rebbetzin sits by the phone, finishing her Tehillim, hoping her estranged daughter will call. Leah had “gone astray” after high school, and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They realize now that they probably overreacted.  For several years now, Mommy and Tatty have tried to reconcile with her – to no avail.

A high rolling businessman in Crown Heights is agonizing over whether to invite his cousin to break the fast. They have done so together for years, but last February Chaim unintentionally lost a bundle of Yossi’s savings in a sour business deal, and they have scarcely spoken since.  He’s not sure how to break the ice, or whether either one of them is ready.

In another city a shlucha daydreams about the good old days, getting up at the crack of dawn for kapporos with her sisters… the smell of those chickens, the squeals of her sisters, as Ta swung the squawking birds over their heads.  She hasn’t spoken to her sister Chani since that disagreement over the makeup artist at Mushki’s wedding.  That was a year and a half ago.

A Chabad House Rabbi in California is reviewing his D’var Torah quickly before the festive meal. It is all about forgiveness. It is beautiful, brilliant. He counsels many of his congregants about shalom bayis, and they find him extraordinarily wise and compassionate. He hasn’t visited his mother in seven years. He can’t bring himself to discuss with her what he thinks she has done wrong. She lives around the corner.


Clearly there is a crisis within our communities.  We hold ahavas Yisroel (love of a fellow Jew) as a sacred ideal, and yet it is too often sorely lacking in our closest relationships. This solution is attainable, albeit with hard work and consistent practice.  Ahavas Yisroel must begin with forgiveness within the family!

At a recent lecture on
achdus (unity), a well-known Jewish educator said that among the 4500 students he interviewed nationwide, nearly every student was aware of some major discord in his family - between mom and dad, between siblings, between aunts or uncles. It could be argued that these findings are an inevitable sign of the advent of the Messianic era, as the Gemara predicts in Sanhedrin: oivey ish, anshei baiso – one’s “enemies” will be the people of his own household. Yet the Torah teaches us that we must learn to forgive!

I have been privileged to help families heal through forgiveness training.  It's not easy. No matter how cherished the ideal, it requires a lot of work to take a "good idea" and bring it from the mind into the heart, to turn fleeting, fickle feelings into second nature, and to truly transform the ways we behave.  Most importantly, like the proverbial light bulb in the old joke about the psychologist, a person must really want to change.


What does the Rebbe say?

A despondent husband comes to the Rebbe with a problem. He and his wife have been married for almost 10 years and they are childless. The Rebbe pauses for moment, and then asks him if there is anyone he needs to ask for forgiveness. (Please understand dear reader that I do not mean to imply that childlessness is a punishment.  Rather, it is a test, as can be seen from the personal histories of our saintly ancestors - including Avraham and Sara, Yitzhok and Rivka, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rebbetzin.)

The Rebbe explains to him that a lack of forgiveness blocks the pipeline of blessings - for both the offender and the offended. The young man replies that he had once been engaged, before meeting his wife, and that he had broken it off. Although the relationship had apparently ended on good terms, he never actually apologized. And, in fact, she had never married.

The Rebbe asks if there is a third party who could talk to this woman. The young man replies that he is a close friend of the woman’s brother, who had made the shidduch. 

The Rebbe encourages him to pursue a four-part program, to earn her genuine forgiveness:

1) Each night say the prayer before the bedtime
Shema with sincerity.
 “Master of the universe I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me or sinned against me either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other – any Israelite; may no man be punished on my account. May it be your will, Lord my G-d and G-d of my fathers that I shall sin nor more , nor repeat my sins, neither shall I again anger you more do what is wrong in Your eyes, The sins that I have committed erase in Your abounding mercies but not through suffering or severe illnesses. May the words of my mouth be acceptable before You, Lord my Strength and my Redeemer.”

2) Pray for the wellbeing of the person you offended. If you know something that they specifically need, pray for that. Do this when you are reciting your daily prayers, or lighting Shabbos candles, or whatever time is your personal spiritual peak.

3) Visualize the situation resolving for the good. This does not necessarily mean reestablishing a relationship, as is obvious from the case in point. Rather, it means visualizing a healing peace between the two parties.

4) Approach the person, or have a third party approach the person, and explain that it is in her best interest to forgive you; that you have done the work to achieve forgiveness; and that it will unblock the pipelines to her personal blessings if she is forgiving.

The young man follows the Rebbe’s instructions. After working on himself, he asks his friend to go to the woman and ask her forgiveness, and to explain that it is in her best interest to forgive. She proclaims her sincere forgiveness.

The result: within a short while the young man’s wife joyfully informs him that she is pregnant! And the woman? Within a few months she becomes engaged!

Let's analyze the essential steps in this story. First, the repetitive, consistent work on forgiveness through the prayer before
Shema helps us to stop fixating on our grievances. It triggers the “letting go” process, and is particularly effective in the evening, when we are relaxed, reflective, and detached from our workaday mentality.  Secondly, the prayer for the other person's well-being is vital for strengthening and healing the heart. Then the positive visualization engages the subconscious, to do the work that the conscious mind finds so daunting. Finally, soliciting the other's forgiveness brings it all down to the field of action.

In the world of medicine, health, and psychology, forgiveness has become a popular topic. Fred Luskin, PhD. is the director of The Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of
Forgive for Good. According to his findings, forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. Forgiveness leads to less stress and fewer health problems. Failure to forgive, on the other hand, may be a more significant risk factor for heart disease than hostility. People who blame others for their troubles have higher incidences of such illnesses as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Even imagining holding a grudge produces negative changes in blood pressure, muscle tension and immune response; while imagining forgiving an offender results in immediate improvement in these same signs.

According to Dr. Luskin, “forgiveness is becoming a hero instead of a victim. Forgiveness helps you get control over your feelings. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is a teachable skill, like learning to throw a baseball. Everyone can learn to forgive…" Yet forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, or condoning bad behavior.  "[It] does not mean reconciling with the offender… [it] does not mean you give up having feelings….” In other words, he recognizes that our practice of forgiveness does not change the fact that the people we forgive remain accountable for their misdeeds. 

This is consistent with the Torah's approach.  It's not just about unblocking the flow of blessing - it's about rectification, the righting of a wrong. Chassidus in particular explains how our practice of forgiveness actually encourages and supports the
teshuvah of those who have harmed or offended us.

The Rambam writes in
Hilchos Teshuvah that "a person should be easily placated and difficult to anger; and when the sinner asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a full heart and a willing spirit," because the good will of the victim is a crucial part of the sinner's teshuvah. “Only when the victim is completely forgiving—to the extent that the sin is uprooted, as if it never existed—can we be sure that the sinner has returned to be as close to G-d as he was prior to the sin.”  The Rebbe explains in Likutei Sichos that this forgiveness not only frees him from punishment, but he is actually helping his fellow Jew to come to a complete teshuvah.

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe defines anger as a momentary loss of faith: "
If one were to believe that what happened to him is of the L-rd's doing, he would not become angry at all. And though it is a person possessed of free choice cursing him, or hitting him, or causing damage to his money, and therefore guilty according to the laws of man and the laws of Heaven for having chosen evil, nevertheless, as regards the person harmed - this was already decreed from Heaven and 'The Omnipresent has many deputies.' (Rashi, Shemos 16:32)"  In short, a person should view whatever comes to him as a Heavenly ruling - either to elevate him or cleanse him of sin. The offender is simply the messenger.

This idea - that the offender is simply helping you to learn a lesson that your soul needs, in order to reach its potential - has begun to surface in contemporary self-help literature as well.  Colin C. Tipping, author of
Radical Forgiveness, suggests an effective technique.  Write a "Release Letter" that proclaims to your "Higher Self" (i.e., your Nefesh Elokis) that you give full permission for all aspects of resentment to be lovingly released: “I do hereby forgive ______________. I release him to his highest good, and set him free. I bless him for having been willing to be my teacher.” This also serves as an instrument of self-forgiveness, for it recognizes that you have reframed the experience as a way to learn and grow.

In the words of the famous post-holocaust Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  We can diminish our grievances by understanding that everything that happens to us is for the good, that Hashem is neither capricious nor despotic, and that He loves each of us like an only child of His old age. Why rent space in our consciousness to someone who has offended us? Why would a healthy person give over his waking thoughts to someone who has done him harm? As we say in EMETT, one of the Torah-based cognitive therapy processes I use in my workshops, “Fix it or forget it.” When you think of someone, think of what you can do to help him or to make the relationship better.  Otherwise think of something else.

Chassidus teaches that whatever we see
out there is a projection of what is in here. What we see in others is a reflection of our own awareness. When you are in a crowded room, in a sense there is only one person in the room, and it is you. The others are reflections of you, and your perception of them is simply a story you have made up in your mind. In the same way, all forgiveness is actually self-forgiveness. And conversely, forgiving others makes it easier for us to forgive ourselves.

A man complained to a tzaddik that he had not been able to find peace of mind. Many years earlier, he had committed a sin, and although he had fasted and prayed for forgiveness and several Yom Kippurs had passed, he could not accept that he was completely forgiven and continued to harbor some guilt. The tzaddik asked, “Have you forgiven others who offended you?” “Of course,” the man answered.  “And your forgiveness was so complete that not a speck of resentment remains with you?” the tzaddik asked. The man’s eyes turned downward, and in a soft undertone he said, “I cannot truthfully say that.” “That is where the problem lays, my son,” the tzaddik said. “You must have a personal experience of total forgiveness to be able to accept the concept and feel that you have been totally forgiven. If you have not been able to feel total forgiveness toward others, you cannot relate it toward yourself either. You must devote yourself to perfecting your forgiveness of others. - Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

The benefits of forgiveness are enormous - peace of mind, shalom bayis, loving and un-conflicted children, increased happiness, improved mental and physical health… And ultimately, because forgiveness is an expression of unconditional ahavas Yisrael, it will end the galus and bring Moshiach. The ability to forgive has been gifted to us all. Even people with devastating losses can learn to forgive. We can even forgive our families! The techniques for forgiveness are as accessible as the multitude of tantalizing cake recipes on the internet. It may not be an easy recipe to follow, but the results are very sweet.

What are we waiting for?