By Rabbi Mark Schiftan and Dr. Frank Boehm
Frank: Mark while we were on our recent June trip to Berlin, we often spoke about issues surrounding the topic of forgiveness, and with the High Holidays around the corner, I thought this would be a good time to explore some of those issues and begin by asking if you believed there were instances and events that we are just unable to forgive?
Mark: Frank the whole concept of forgiveness— both the ability to give it to others, as well as the desire to receive it, in return, from others— is both extremely complex and emotionally complicated. This is especially true for acts which are ultimately unforgivable: acts of violence, sexual abuse, neglect, and of course, heinous acts of hatred designed to terrify and terrorize other human beings. I am not sure these actions that so clearly dehumanize others are forgivable under any circumstances. Certainly, it is not in our power to forgive others — like the Nazis— for the brutality brought upon our people. What are your thoughts about this, especially after our trip to Berlin this past summer?
Frank: I agree with you that there are acts which are not forgivable and the Holocaust would certainly be one of those events, but I do not believe we should continue to withhold forgiveness to Germany and all Germans living now for the crimes against our people during the time of WWII. Germany is doing all it can to admit their crimes against nature, teaching it to all students and adults and pledging to never let such an atrocity happen again. We saw this while we were visiting Holocaust museums throughout Berlin by the many busloads of students taken to various museums of horror, something our own country is shying away from doing. In contrast to Germany, we seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the historical injustices of our own country.
Mark: Frank, I totally agree with you. Just as we cannot forgive the Nazis for what they did to desecrate and dehumanize our people, we also cannot hold the current generations of Germans for the crimes perpetrated before them.
Viewing the history of our own country, there is still a need to accept and acknowledge our own transgressions.
As we approach the High Holy Day season, let us bring this down to a more basic level of human relationships and the struggles to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and to offer it to others who may have offended us. Of course, these are among the most difficult tasks to undertake as human beings because they incur the risks of vulnerability and complete contrition. Still, these efforts can set our minds free, to release our souls from the burdens we carry, and to allow us to make peace with ourselves, our neighbors, and our Creator.
Frank: Mark, what interests me most about forgiveness are the important principles surrounding the process of forgiveness. The three basic principles of asking for forgiveness are:
1) Recognizing the wrong you did.
2) Recognizing the negative impact of what you did.
3) Taking ownership of and asking for forgiveness for both the first and second of these principles.
Conversely, the person wronged must feel that the person asking for forgiveness is truly repentant and that when you state that yes, I forgive you, you are also agreeing to another three principles which are:
1) Not to ever bring it up again.
2) Not to ever bring it up to anyone else.
3) Not to ever bring it up to yourself as well.
Mark: I think you’ve got it exactly right Frank. I would only add one thing to your list, for the one seeking forgiveness: A pledge to never, ever commit the same offense again, recognizing and fully comprehending the harm inflicted on the one to whom an apology is due.
Ultimately, this is the beauty of our Jewish tradition: Once each year, we take a measure of our time on Earth, and our conduct towards others. And before we dare seek forgiveness from God, our tradition requires that we first make peace with our neighbor and attempt to reconcile with one another.
Frank: Mark, there is one item we also need to mention regarding the issue of forgiveness and that is to be able to forgive oneself. This is truly a difficult thing to do as you are both the offender and the one being offended. Here is where guilt plays a key role as guilt is an incredibly destructive emotion that desperately needs our personal forgiveness. It is under these circumstances that prayer can be of immense help and the upcoming High Holidays is an opportune time to find a way to forgive oneself through reflection and prayer.
Mark: Frank, I love this concept of forgiving oneself, so long as it does not release us from the need to continue to seek forgiveness from others. I believe that we all harbor regrets that can burden our thoughts and weigh heavily upon our hearts. We all have deeds we wish we could undo, or words that we could take back that should never have escaped from our lips. Even worse, there are actions taken against those we loved who live no more, or perhaps it was our inaction or inattentiveness for which we now have remorse.
By acknowledging and accepting our shortcomings, our failures, and our regrets, the High Holy Days can help us to heal ourselves by forgiving ourselves as well as extending forgiveness to others. Such is the power of redemption and renewal that form the promise of every New Year.
Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at email@example.com