Thursday, August 4, 2011


We are still (thankfully) quite a ways away from the High Holy Days. These are, of course, the time of year when we are supposed to focus on repentance, and its counterpart, forgiveness. Although the “official” time for beginning our yearly process of heshbon hanefesh (literally, accounting of the soul—a deep, careful self-exploration, focusing on what we've done poorly, and where we need to improve as people) doesn't start until the end of August (when the Hebrew month of Elul begins), it's never too early to begin to think about this topic.

Recently, a congregant pointed me towards a blog, written by a lawyer who works primarily with victims of sexual abuse. He wrote a few entries about the question of apology and forgiveness. It's worth a read, if you have a minute.

His first entry is really about the inadequacy of most apologies. This is a favorite pet peeve of mine (and, of a lot of us, I imagine). “I'm sorry if I hurt you.” “I made a mistake.” They aren't really apologies—just pseudo-apologies, trying to dodge the hard work of truly begin the process of making amends:
A true apology and request for forgiveness starts with an unconditional acknowledgment– yes, even confession– of wrongdoing.  "I was, we were,  wrong. Our actions were selfish and wrong. There is no excuse. We are deeply sorry and offer our sincere and unconditional apology. We humbly ask your forgiveness."
His second entry is an example of a true apology. Given the topic (sexual abuse against children) it's devastating to read, but also deeply powerful. I won't pull a quote from it; it just needs to stand on its own.

Lastly, he moves the focus off of apologies, and on to forgiveness. He talks about the power of forgiveness, but it also puts into words something which I often struggle to express clearly. As important as forgiveness might be, and as focused as many religions are on forgiveness, it can't be mandated. It seems to me a bit nonsensical to tell someone how they should feel, and on some level, that's what we're doing if we tell someone, “you have to forgive.” But, maybe more importantly (or, perhaps, this is really a different aspect of the same idea) mandated forgiveness loses its power. Forgiveness—true, powerful forgiveness—has to come in its own time, in its own way:
once in a great while—and it is a mysterious and beautiful thing– I have seen wounded people become strong, become clear, become free in their healing and new power, and then choose to forgive those who have hurt them.  And what I then see in these people is a release, a new level of freedom from the toxic hold that the hurtful person once held over them.  “He/She has held me and my emotions captive long enough,” they say. “I’m done.  I release it, I release him.  I’m no longer willing to carry the burden of this anger, this hurt, this resentment.  I choose to forgive, and I am free.  I do not hate him; I do not wish him ill.  I want to be at peace, with myself, with him, with the universe.  Knowing I could choose not to do so, and that I would be justified in doing so, I nonetheless think it is best– for me –to choose to forgive.”  When these incredible people come to this place, as I have observed, they become some of the freest, most peaceful, powerful and loving people I have ever known.  

Given his career, he probably has a different insight into apologies and forgiveness than most of us do. It makes for some interesting reading.

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