On Yom Kippur we say over and again, ‘Selcah lanu, mechal lanu, forgive us and pardon us.’ But are we ourselves forgiving and pardoning? Like they say about charity, forgiveness begins at home. It’s easy to be sentimental – and superficial – about it; but genuine, deep-reaching forgiveness for real hurts is hard.
Of course, many of life’s incidents are trivial, and the sooner we see them as such the better, letting go of our irritation with a ‘these things happen’ smile.
But when it comes to real wounds, forgiveness entails emotional generosity and courage. Moreover, since old sores tend to re-open in our memory, forgiveness is often something we have to struggle with many times over.
Forgiveness includes forgiving each other, life itself for its cruelties and injustice, and, sometimes hardest of all, ourselves. It does not include condoning wrongdoing and undermining responsibility and accountability.
To feel hurt and resentment is only human. In our worst moments we’re liable to turn Hillel’s famous line on his head, ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,’ and think instead, ‘I want to do back to those so-and-sos exactly the same hateful things they did to me!’
Hebrew has two terms for forgiveness. The first is selichah, which my teacher Rabbi Magonet explains as almost always referring in the Bible to God. The second is mechilah, pardon, a word found more often in rabbinic literature, which indicates the willingness to let go of our dignity and rights, including the ‘right’ to hold over others the threat of hurting them back for what they’ve done to us.
I find this idea of ‘letting go’ helpful. Forgiving another person doesn’t mean forgetting, let alone condoning, what happened. Rather, it entails letting go of our justified feelings of hurt and anger in favour of repairing our relationship. The motivation for such mechilah is the value we attach to that relationship. Recognising that our collegiality, companionship, or, in our closest relationships, the love we have for each other matters more than the hurt which has come between us, allows us to stop holding the incident over the other person’s head.
Instead, we can acknowledge it and try to learn from it so that the connection between us, including its mistakes and wounds, grows deeper. This is forgiveness at its best.
I believe something related can apply to forgiving ourselves. Because we’re only human, we’re unlikely to avoid carrying deep, in-the-flesh-and-bone feelings of shame and regret. Others may, or may not, have forgotten or forgiven; but either way we struggle to do so. Perhaps we can think of God, or life itself, as saying to us: ‘We matter deeply to each other. You’re only mortal, and it’s impossible to get everything right. Accept this humbling truth. Then, for the sake of the future, let your self-doubts and mistakes become your teachers, deepening your understanding and compassion for yourself and others, inspiring you to bring healing to life.
What, though of true wickedness and evil, which one should be extremely sceptical about associating with a word like forgiveness lest it be thought that they could ever be forgotten or condoned? These are wounds to humanity itself, and to the victims in particular, from which we have to hope, vainly it often seems, that humankind will learn for the future.
What, too, of life itself, with all its inequality and unfairness, the illness it often randomly inflicts, the untimely griefs it can bring, the way it puts hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and makes millions, children included, carry pain in the heart for the rest of their lives? How can one forgive?
It’s understandable if people end up bitter.
But it’s a bad outcome. Sometimes we have to try to let go, simply because not to do so hurts more. We embrace, and asked to be embraced by, the spirit of compassion, the God of mercy, so that we can live not a bitter or hard-hearted but a generous and loving life.
Like so much else connected with forgiveness, it’s easily said, but a life-long task to do.