Seek forgiveness, forgive others, and lighten your heart

A man visiting a bar each evening would routinely throw glasses at the bartender and the people sitting and drinking. Yet he always made sure to follow up his violence by pleading for forgiveness. “I suffer from uncontrollable rage and I am deeply ashamed of it; please forgive me for my embarrassing and unforgivable behavior,” he would say.

Finally, the bartender gave him an ultimatum: He could not come back to the bar unless he underwent therapy for a full year. The man consented.

After the year finally passed, the man showed up at the bar one evening. Lo and behold, he took a glass and threw it right at the bartender.

“What’s going on?” the bartender thundered.

“Well, as you have suggested, I went to therapy,” the man replied, “and now I am not embarrassed anymore.”

“For on this day [Yom Kippur] He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before God, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.” — Leviticus 16:30

On Yom Kippur, God mercifully erases all the sins we have committed “before God” — but not the sins we may have committed against our fellow human beings. If we really want to come out of this holy day completely clean, we need to first approach any individual whom we may have wronged and beg his or her forgiveness. Doesn’t matter if the offense was physical, emotional or financial (in which case, seeking forgiveness is in addition to making appropriate monetary restitution), it has got to be done.

And just as the offending individual is commanded to sincerely seek forgiveness, so, too, the victim is expected to wholeheartedly forgive — provided the individual is assured that the plea for forgiveness is indeed sincere.

Let’s delve deeper into this mitzvah.

You should really specify the wrongdoing for which you are seeking forgiveness — unless doing so would cause further embarrassment to the victim. (Let’s not add insult to injury!)

If the injured party refuses to forgive, you should try approaching that person several times, each time in the company of a few friends (who can try to convince the victim of the sincerity of your intentions).

It goes even further. If the wronged individual has since passed away, and the gravesite is nearby, take a minyan to the gravesite and beg forgiveness there. If the gravesite is not close by, you can appoint someone to go to the grave together with a minyan to ask for forgiveness on your behalf.

While surfing the Web, I came across many sites that tout the benefits of forgiveness. They include healthier relationships; greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.

Now, I’m sure that these benefits certainly are true and valid rewards of forgiveness. But we seek forgiveness for a deeper reason. According to the Talmud, although events in our lives may be masked as “natural,” the doctrine of divine providence provides that everything that happens to us is God’s will. As Rabbi Chanina declared: “A person does not prick his finger below (on Earth) unless it is decreed for him above (in heaven), as it is stated [Psalms 37:23]: ‘A person’s footsteps are established by God’ ” (Tractate Chullin 6b).

So, the person who has hurt us is merely acting as God’s agent. If you want to be upset about anything, you can be upset with that person only for having made the bad choice to be God’s agent. But, bottom line, we had it coming to us anyway. Think about that for a while, and it should already lessen any hard feelings we have about the perp.

So, when anything bad happens in our lives, instead of getting angry with the messenger, we should ask ourselves: Why do we deserve this? Is it to test, refine or punish us? Or is it a chance to do something really great by reaching deeper into ourselves to grow from the experience?

If we want to go beyond the letter of the law, we should forgive people even if they do not ask for, or even want, our forgiveness. In fact, in many different types of prayerbooks, before retiring for the night (that’s every night), we forgive anyone who has offended us in any way.

Our Torah gives some over-the-top instances of human forgiveness that we can hope to emulate.

Joseph, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, when reunited with them says, “Forget it. No big deal. It was all part of the divine plan, so I could save you all and the whole Middle East from famine. You were just [God’s] instruments to carry out that plan.”

And who can fail to be inspired by the example of Moses, in Numbers 21:5? When his people viciously criticized him, resulting in a divine punishment of venomous snakes, we find that he did not bear a grudge, and prayed for the people to be saved. “From here we learn,” writes the 11th-century commentator Rashi, “that if a person asks you for forgiveness, you should not be cruel and refrain from forgiving.”

May we all learn from these sterling characters how to forgive others and, most of all, how to forgive ourselves. After all, with our legendary guilty Jewish consciences, we usually tend to be pretty hard on ourselves. So, we should switch the channel to something more positive, about our inestimable self-worth as human beings.

One last thought: Studies show that the act of forgiving lifts a load off the heart. Even if the other is not deserving, you deserve to be freed from the heartache that comes with anger. The Talmud tells us that those who forgive the undeserving are forgiven by God. So, let it go already.

And in the merit of forgiveness, may we all be sealed for a good, sweet New Year.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris directs Chabad of the East Bay with his wife, Miriam, who forgives him on a regular basis.