September 17, 2015 admin

Apology and forgiveness

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for apology and forgiveness, through deeds, words and the spirit of understanding and generosity which should embrace us all. This is never easy and I’m sometimes asked questions which touch on the complex and often painful realities of human relationships.
Jewish tradition is clear: we can’t use God as a way of avoiding our neighbour. Maimonides states: ‘Repentance and Yom Kippur atone only for sins between a person and God. With regard to sins between person and person, such as causing injury to, cursing or robbing others, one is not pardoned until one has made good what one owes and sought their favour. Even if one has returned the money due, one has to seek their favour and ask for their pardon. Even if one only upset them with words, one has to make one’s peace and entreat them until they forgive’.  
The truth is that the great majority of the hurts we give and receive are because of words. The bravado rhyme that ‘sticks and stones break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is just not true.
Jewish tradition has a procedure for apologising. One first goes and asks. If the other person rejects the approach, one takes three friends and goes a second, a third and even one more final time. If one’s efforts to apologise have still not been accepted, then, says Maimonides, one has done enough; the fault lies with the person who is too hard-hearted to forgive. There are of course exceptions: what if one has irretrievably damaged someone’s reputation, or injured their child, or even worse, God forbid?
Apology and forgiveness are about humility, understanding and kindness. It’s an important part of our humanity to be able to acknowledge to ourselves and others that we have faults, are capable of being mistaken, sometimes act wrongly and can’t always manage to live up to being the kind of person we’d love to be. Life is often tender and raw, and it matters to have sufficient compassion to be aware of and sorry about the hurts we sometimes inflict. It’s important, too, to have the understanding and generosity not to hold onto every wrong done to us. Other people have their struggles, pressures and weaknesses too.
When we forgive, we don’t erase the past; we neither have the capacity to do so, nor would it necessarily be a good thing. Rather, we put the importance of the relationship as a whole ahead of the particular hurtful event. While it remains something to learn from, we commit to no longer consciously holding the incident against the other person. Often we do this instinctively because our companionship matters more than its failings. Or we work our way towards understanding to help free us from the pain and potential bitterness of a difficult past.
Sometimes the other person is beyond our reach and we are left with the burdens of anger and guilt. Perhaps those are the times when we need to talk to a trusted friend, or to God, or simply to ourselves, and ask, for our own good as much as for any others involved, that resentment and remorse be melted or at least mitigated by compassion and understanding.

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