Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on the benefits of forgiving those who have hurt us
Why is it so difficult to forgive others? This is a time of year when we are told that we must forgive people if they apologise to us, but sometimes the idea of forgiveness seems too difficult or painful. Besides, we are told that God will forgive someone if they apologise three times, so why open ourselves up to pain by doing something that God will do regardless?
A number of years ago, I was hurt by someone close to me. My entire world was turned upside down by their actions and I felt little but contempt – even hatred – toward them. I went out of my way to avoid this person and was overcome by anger whenever our paths crossed.
At one point, I took a chance and forgave them, only to be hurt once more. And so I decided that no utterance of forgiveness would ever leave my mouth again (at least toward this person). I convinced myself I was taking a stand on moral grounds and that I was doing the right thing by punishing this person for their behaviour.
But the thing is, the only person who was truly punished by my choice was me. I was the one filled with animosity and resentment. I was the one suffering from stress, worrying about when I might run into this person and what I would do or say. I was the one living with the nagging suspicion that maybe I was doing the wrong thing by not forgiving them.
And then one day, the inevitable happened. I was forced yet again to decide between forgiving this person or holding onto this grudge – and I cautiously chose to forgive them. While the process was slow and painful while rebuilding trust and learning anew how to navigate the terrain of our relationship, eventually things began to feel different. I was no longer weighed down by the emotional burden I had been carrying. I actually could feel a difference in my body as well as in my mind. In the end, Irealised it was far easier to forgive someone than to bear a grudge against them.
A while back, I read a news story about someone who, standingoutside a criminal court, publicly expressed their forgiveness towardsthe person who murdered their loved one. I was initially amazed by their willingness to forgive, but I also understood their choice, which they said was rooted deeply in their faith.
During the High Holy Days, we recite numerous times the 13 Attributes of God; invoking God’s compassion, patience, love and forgiveness. Imagine if we allowed ourselves truly to internalise these words when we say them – if we reassured ourselves that the best way to experience the Divine in our world is by extricating any hatred and resentment from within it. If the family of a murder victim can forgive their loved one’s killer, can’t we forgive those who commit far less severe transgressions against us?
We all agree it would be unthinkable for an adult to condemn a child to a life of punishment for wronging them. Instead through our patience, understanding and forgiveness, we give them another chance, showing the child that we believe they can be better, thereby encouraging their growth and maturation.
And yet, when we hurt others, even intentionally, we are behaving much like children – not fully aware of how our actions may impact those around us. With this in mind, it seems almost cruel to withhold forgiveness from those who wrong us, once we understand that the best motivation for growth is not anger and punishment, but love and forgiveness.
So this year, as we make our way through the High Holydays, I invite us all to embrace the idea of forgiveness. As difficult as it may be, I know it can make us all better people. And that is indeed what this time of year is about.