“I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”
These are some difficult sentences for one person to say to another. Why is that so? Jewish congregations gather together to observe the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur next week, and we are instructed by our religious tradition to delve into our actions and to face the challenge of repentance.
It is not only saying sorry to those we have offended or to apologize to God for the transgressions we have committed against the Holy One but also to extend forgiveness to an offending party in a conflict. The difficulty of saying these two sentences, let alone to forgive an individual, applies to all of us as well as to the Jewish community.
I can remember my parents expecting me to apologize for all kinds of things I allegedly did. Admittedly, I was resistant because it meant owning up to the mistakes I made or the hurt feelings I caused. Whether as a child or an adult, it does not get any easier with age to utter those words. Nor do the years make it less difficult to apologize when I am expecting someone else to say they are sorry for hurting my feelings.
Are we afraid if the person we approach chooses not to accept our apology? Is it the fear of humiliation, or is it subjecting ourselves to hearing the other person’s anger or disappointment that makes it difficult for us? Does saying sorry mean we are weak? Does expressing our regret to another person put us in a vulnerable position? That is not, generally speaking, what humans like to do.
Forgiveness is the key to these issues and that, too, is not so easily done. I hear people say, “I can forgive, but I will not forget.” Others will sometimes say in response to an apology, “Fine, let’s just move on.” Are either of these authentic acts of forgiveness?
At the heart of repentance within a person is compassion and mercy. We ask God for mercy when we have done wrong but is it not the same for us to extend mercy to someone who musters up the courage to offer a sincere apology, too? Robert Enright, a researcher from Stanford University, says, “Forgiveness is connected to goodness.”
“Mercy is offering to others what they have not deserved because of their lack of respect, kindness and generosity and love towards you,” Enright says. “Even though they did not extend these to you, it is the case in forgiveness that you do not give these to those who have hurt you. That is mercy: to give what was not given to you.”
The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a perfect example of forgiveness and mercy.
When he finally revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt, they were frightened, knowing he could take their lives for kidnapping him and selling him into slavery. What did Joseph say to them: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive? Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here, for God did send me here before you to preserve life. And God sent me before you to preserve you as a posterity in the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
This story is a classic example of forgiveness and mercy.
Joseph transcended the pain they caused him and found a different pathway to work through his emotions. The truth is that, many times, people who ought to apologize never do, thereby leaving us to deal with the lingering and unresolved hurt. We have choices. One is to harbor the pain and anger for the rest of our lives. The second is to find a way to rise above it. I know it is a tall order, and sometimes it can take years to come to grips with our choices. Showing forgiveness does not mean giving in or excusing the offending individual’s actions. Forgiveness means finding a better way than living with anger and pain which, in the long run, is not good for our mental, physical or spiritual health.
Saying sorry takes strength and courage.
Forgiving someone is equally challenging.
Bringing peace into the world begins with each of us, and learning how to apologize and to forgive go hand in hand.
For the Jewish community, Yom Kippur affords us a specific, sacred 24 hours of prayer and fasting to rise up to the moral high ground. Just as we petition God to forgive us for our sins, should we also show mercy for those who have hurt us even if they do not actually ask us for forgiveness?
It is hard, but who said that religion was easy?
Is it always about winning the argument or being right? When that criterion is the defining motivation, then we have missed the mark.