The Power of Forgiveness I
Chazal have taught us that the strongest plea for forgiveness that we can offer before Hashem on Yom Kippur is our own willingness to forgive others. "Kol ha'maavirin al middosav maavirin lo al kol peshav (Yoma 23a) – which might be loosely translated, "All who forgo their natural reaction [to wrongs done to them] have all their sins overlooked."
And conversely, if we do not make an effort to forgive those who have injured us, intentionally or unintentionally – more frequently the latter – how can we ask Hashem to overlook all the many ways we have betrayed our relationship with Him.
No one suggests that forgiveness is easy. Of all the miracles of the 1967 War, the one that made the deepest impression on Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, had to do with an embittered agunah who lived next door to the Mirrer Yeshiva.
The yeshiva served as the air raid shelter for the Bais Yisrael neighborhood, and as soon as the Jordanian shelling started at the outset of the war, hundreds of people crowded into the basement of the yeshiva from the surrounding neighborhood.
From the basement, it was possible to hear the mortars whistling overhead. At one point, the building suffered a direct hit, and many of those crowded in the basement felt the end was nigh and began reciting Shema. Suddenly, one voice could be heard above all the others. It was that of the lonely agunah.
"My husband has left me abandoned for twenty years. I have suffered so much. But I forgive him. You, too, Ribbono shel Olam, forgive the Jewish people for all we have done wrong."
Whenever Reb Chaim would mention this story in a shmuess, he would pause and cry as he contemplated all that poor woman had suffered and how much cause she had to feel bitterness to the husband who had caused her so much pain.
And then he would say, "Her prayer saved us!"
FORGIVING OTHERS IS ONLY ONE part of the teshuva process. No less crucial is seeking forgiveness from others. Even Hashem cannot forgive our sins bein adam l'chavero until we have made an earnest effort to secure the forgiveness of those whom we have wronged.
Seeking that forgiveness is neither easy nor pleasant. None of us likes to admit that we were wrong. Sometimes the extent of our cruelty or heedlessness is too much for us to contemplate and retain our favorable self-image.
Seeking forgiveness leaves us feeling dependent on the one whose forgiveness we seek, and there is something about each of us that resists placing ourselves in a position where we are forced to acknowledge vulnerability and neediness, whether towards Hashem or our fellow man.
Yet thinking about the many ways large and small that we have fallen short in our responsibilities to others, particularly those closest or most dependent on us, is an excellent way to review the year and to gain a reading of where we are holding spiritually and what requires our attention. And as we contemplate how we have fallen short in our treatment of others, it becomes easier for us to be a bit more tolerant and forgiving to those whom we perceive as having injured us.
I will never forget receiving a call one Erev Yom Kippur from someone about whom I had written that year, and who called to ask mechillah for not having shown greater hakaras hatov. Not for one second had it occurred to me that he owed me anything. But what most astounded me was that his chesbon nefesh encompassed such a small matter in the year of a very busy man. My already great respect for that particular individual skyrocketed.
There is nothing like an expression of a heartfelt apology arrived at after serious introspection to dispose one favorably to the person seeking mechillah. (Please spare me, however, formulaic expressions beginning, "If I've done anything . . . ," which are about as serious as politicians' apologies starting, "If my words gave offense [-- you already know they enraged thousands or you wouldn't be say anything --] I'm truly sorry.")
NOT ONLY IS FORGIVING others and seeking their forgiveness, crucial to rebuilding our relationships with Hashem and those closest to us, a good deal of recent research shows that letting go of our anger towards others is good for us. Megan Feldman Bettencourt has gathered much of that evidence in Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World.
Salon recently excerpted a section of her book. That except begins anecdotally with Dr. Habrey Erwin, a burns specialist at Tulane University hospital. Dr. Erwin discovered that patients suffering from severe burns, were often also figuratively "burning with anger" at the person who caused their burns, whether themselves or someone else. When he offered hypnotic suggestions to release their anger and focus instead on healing themselves, he discovered that their skin grafts were much less likely to be rejected.
Between 1998 and 2005, empirical studies investigating the power of forgiveness and how to achieve it increased from 58 to 950 spurred by grants from the John Templeton Foundation. Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist at University of Wisconsin, examined the different therapeutic outcomes between a control group and one whose therapy included a forgiveness component. Across a range of different types of groups – drug rehabilitation, victims of domestic violence, terminally ill cancer patients – the forgiveness components led to markedly better psychological and emotional functioning.
A 2009 study of cardiac patients published in the journal Psychology and Health found that forgiveness therapy improved blood flow to the heart, and reduced both pain and the risk of sudden death.
Dr. Frederic Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project has discovered that dwelling on the wrongs done to us releases certain chemicals associated with high stress situations – adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Using modern brain-mapping techniques, it is possible to see how these chemicals stimulate the non-thinking zone of our brains and impede rational thinking, while increasing feelings of helplessness. The inability to forgive is correlated with depression, anxiety, hostility, and helplessness.
Forgiveness in the context used by scientific researchers does not mean that the "perpetrator" should not be held accountable – e.g, in a civil suit for damages – but rather that the victim "let go" of the wrong done and stop blaming it for his or her emotional state, as if the latter is immutable. Part of unraveling the "grievance narrative" often involves ceasing to attribute intentions to the "perpetrator" that were likely never there.
May we all be zocheh to let go prior to Yom Kippur of some of our accumulated hurts and the anger and thoughts of revenge that accompany them. That anger eats away at our relationships and blocks us from living productive and happy lives. And if we succeed, may we also experience the greatest joy possible on Yom Kippur – Hashem's forgiveness and renewed closeness.
The Power of Forgiveness II
Recently at a levaya in Jerusalem, the mechutan of the niftar related a remarkable story about him, which he had heard from the deceased's granddaughter.
During her year in seminary in Israel, the granddaughter arranged to spend a Shabbos in the northern community of Rechasim. Her hostess greeted her and asked her name. When the hostess heard the name she grew extremely animated, and asked the girl whether she was the granddaughter of someone of the same family name from a large community in the New York area. The girl replied proudly that she was his granddaughter.
The hostess, it turned out, was one of hundreds of Israeli-born Jews who had been a ben or bas bayis in the home of the girl's grandparents after attending an Arachim Seminar in America, and who had learned in either the yeshiva or seminar established by the niftar for Israeli-born ba'alei teshuva. (The niftar too was Israeli-born, and most of his family who remained in Israel did not remain observant.)
The hostess told her Shabbos guest that her grandparents were in many respects closer to her than her own parents, and that her grandfather had flown to Israel just for her chasanah, and then arranged on the spur of the moment a beautiful sheva berachos the next night, with dozens of yeshiva bochurim.
At the Shabbos meal, the hostess related a story about a certain well-to-do frum Jew who employed as a manager in his large business a young Israeli, who had attended one of the Arachim seminars. At the end of the year, the employer realized by comparing his inventory and receipts that someone was stealing from him – not just minor pilferage, but major theft – and the thief could have only been an employee.
He decided to spend the night in his office to solve the mystery. In the middle of the night, he heard the large doors to the warehouse swing open, and watched as the manager drove a small truck up to the warehouse and loaded a couple of items into the truck. The owner of the warehouse did not call the police, and spent the rest of the night contemplating how to handle the matter.
The next day, he called the manager into his office and asked him what he had been doing in the warehouse the previous evening. The young man first denied that he had been there, but soon broke down in tears and confessed to his crime. He told the warehouse owner that he was living with crushing financial obligations to his family whom he had left behind in Israel.
The owner began by telling him that he would not call the police. He asked only two things from the young man. First, that he continue strengthening himself religiously. Second, that he work for him until he had paid off the entire amount that he had stolen.
Finally, he told the young man, he was going to give him a raise so that he would be able to pay back what he owed and still send money to his family.
When she had finished the story, the hostess turned to her young guest and told her, "That man was your grandfather."
And what of the thief? He is a kollel avreich until today.
And that is just one more aspect of the power of forgiveness – the ability to positively influence the beneficiary of that forgiveness – the greater the wrong to be forgiven the greater the influence.
(I apologize for the awkward way in which I have related this story, but just as the niftar always worked far from the limelight in his lifetime, his family wishes to preserve his anonymity after his passing. Hanistarim L'Hashem.)