A Story of Forgiveness
I had a longtime rupture with a family member. I don’t need to give you the details. I have their permission to talk about my process, but not about theirs. And in about 10 seconds, the details aren’t going to matter anyway, because you’ll be thinking about your own life.
Well, in my case, I was sure my relative had hurt me first; they were sure that I hurt them first.
We did not want to be at odds. So we tried to work it out. We listened to each other. I did the bedtime forgiveness meditation. I went to therapy to explore my dreams and to get advice on what to say and do. I used every tool I had to sort out my confusing feelings, and to see my chain of interpersonal mistakes clearly.
But nothing worked. I was still incredibly angry and so were they.
And then, one day—I am not making this up—my therapist was on a long vacation. So—therapists, cover your ears—I said to myself, “You have to be your own therapist now.” And I resolved to do a deep, structured meditation every day.
On this particular day, I was doing a meditation on attachment. And I saw three things clearly. Number one: I am deeply attached to this person. Number two: I am deeply attached to my desire to be forgiven by them. Number three: They are never going to forgive me. At least, they are never going to look back at what happened and feel good about it. They’re not even going to feel neutral about it.
So, I called them up, on the phone I mean, not just in a visualization. And I said “I get that you might never forgive me, and I can live with that.”
And then, the healing began.
I was surprised. I am surprised. And the cognitive part of me wants to understand. What happened? So, I’ve come up with three ways to think about it. I call them “the ethical model,” “the kabbalistic model,” and “the model of pure mystery.”
Repentance and Forgiveness
Here’s the ethical model. During the high holidays, we often talk about Repentance, Forgiveness, and Atonement. Sometimes as if they are connected in a chain. You repent, then I will forgive you, and then God will grant atonement. But I don’t think they are always connected. Sometimes, they might be three separate spiritual tasks, three separate challenges, for three separate actors. Sometimes the three actors are in communication. And sometimes they are not, because of distance or death or deep pain.
Repentance is the task for a person who harms another. It is up to the repenter to recognize the harm. Then, to feel bad about it and want to do something. Next, to apologize. To find out what reparations those who are harmed would hope for and, to the extent that it is possible, offer them. And, finally, to change enough to not repeat the harm. At least, this is the task as Maimonides sets it out, a whole package of thought, feeling, and action.
Forgiveness is the task for a person who is harmed. What will it look like? A letting go of pain, or a living into it? What will it feel like? A burden lifted, or one simply set aside in the interest of getting on with life? When is the right time? After reparation, or during, or before? Is forgiveness safe? Is it helpful? What’s a good place to turn for support? No one can answer these questions for another person.
Atonement, as I define it here, is in the hands of God. God can grant atonement without reparation and without forgiveness. We might have opinions. And wish, for example, that our own feelings of anger could control God. But we don’t control the heavenly realm. And, even if we did, we would probably never know it. Because celestial privacy laws keep other people’s records sealed to us.
You can see how this helps me understand what happened in my family. Repentance and forgiveness each had its own timeline. My repentance could not force another’s forgiveness. And when I was able to speak that out loud, we both found out that was what we were both waiting to hear. That was part of the surprise.
Forgiveness As A Lifting of Veils
Nine years ago, I had a very intense family weekend in New York City. Lots of confessions, lots of revelations, lots of tears. On the flight home to Vancouver, I had a mystical experience that lasted for five hours.
As I took my seat on the airplane, the man next to me put on giant headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours. This bothered me. He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me.
Still, what he did sparked something for me. Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His thoughts, feelings, and actions affected me.
And I saw:
His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.
Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.
To imagine my consciousness centered in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.
The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.
What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.
Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.
My old view of an “I” centered within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.
Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly.
To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.
I understood this as an experience of Divine infinity. As Kabbalah teaches, divine energy is everywhere. Every created being expresses it, and also veils it, hides it. But we can learn to peel off the layers of thought and feeling that make it hard to perceive God’s presence.
Because of what happened in New York, I also got it into my head that this how forgiveness should work. If two people are at odds, they can peel off the veils, see each other truly, and reconcile. They will take off the veil of egocentric seeing, then the veil of negative emotion, and then, boom. A good, peaceful, restorative boom.
But, forgiveness does not always work this way. You cannot always get to the one truth behind the veil. As kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson says, the heaviest veil of all is the belief that we can perceive God with no veils. In truth, we have to learn to perceive God through the veils and in the veils. To resolve this newer conflict, I did not need to lift another veil. I just needed to look at what is.
Mystery and Compassion
The third model—the last, very brief model—is the model of mystery. It comes from the Torah, the thirteen attributes of divine compassion, revealed to Moshe with the deepest paradox. The Torah says that Moshe speaks with God face-to-face. And that Moshe cannot see God’s face. And that Moshe sees God’s aftereffects: compassion, grace, patience, love and truth. Which is it? That’s a mystery.
Sometimes, something greater than us is at work. Call it God, psyche, spirit, love, mystery. We don’t see it directly, but we see its aftereffects. Maybe that is what happened in our family. And if it is, I’ll take it, whether I understand it or not. They say that at Rosh Hashanah, the King—this energy—is in the field. I hope it will cross your path. Shana tova.
Originally offered as a sermon at Or Shalom Synagogue, Rosh Hashanah 5783/2022. Photo: Laura Duhan-Kaplan, Flower arrangement by Gilligan Girls Flowers on Main, Vancouver, Canada.