These High Holidays involve a profound question: “to forgive, or not to forgive?”
The rabbis, and the machzor they wrote, speak of three types of forgiveness that we sing about when we sing “slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.” There is kapparah-the ultimate forgiveness granted only by God. There is slichah, which involves achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other, and there is mechilah, when the offender sincerely apologizes and the sinned-against relinquishes their claim against the one who did wrong.
Kapparah works well when the sinner feels remorse, and wants a fresh start. Slichah works well when the sinner is still around to make amends. Mechilah works well when the possibility of teshuvah remains.
But what if the sinner is unrepentant? What if the sinner died unrepentantly, or is out of the victim’s life? Still further, what if you don’t know who exactly committed the transgression? And what if the sin itself seems absolutely unforgivable? The traditional categories of forgiveness seem no longer to apply. Are the victims of the offenses in these cases to be left helplessly hostage for all time to the sinner, a kind of aguna, like the traditional Jewish wife whose husband refuses to give a divorce?
I feel passionately that we should each pursue mechila, slichah, and kaparah in these days of awe, and every day for that matter.
On the other hand, there are those among us today who have been abused, victimized. Can it really be true that, if the sinner either refuses or missed his or her opportunity to repent, that there is no Jewish context in which the victim can escape this pain? Can the abused daughter, the abandoned spouse, the son whose mother died without making peace, truly find no liberation from this bondage? What will their victims do, if such people will never repent their evil ways?
Sins committed against us can cause great pain and suffering. They can cause a darkness to fall over your soul. With every insult and every assault, we lose trust and faith and our belief that life could be different. We lose our innocence, the belief that life is essentially good.
In the face of evil, perhaps in spite of it, we have the opportunity to choose good. Not to condone evil. Not to turn the other cheek. And never to forget. But rather, to let go of the darkness that has entered our souls. To let go of the control that evil can have over us. To let go of the pain. To let go of the fear. If this process is not to take place by the usual process of forgiveness handed down to us by the Jewish generations-if this pain will find no balm in mechila, slichah, or kaparah, perhaps it’s time for a new category that we, survivors of sin, can control. Perhaps we might call it shachrira. Like the other words for forgiveness, shachrira has many connotations; it’s basic meaning, though, is: a letting go, a liberating, a redeeming.
In the face of unrepented sin, shachrira is an essential and primal release of the poison and brokenness that has entered your soul. You acknowledge the loss of innocence, trust, and faith. You rage against the sin that was committed against you. And you accept, with a lot of self-love, and the support of family and friends and therapists, and others, the narrative that has become your life. For you have survived, and your life’s path can send you forth to bear witness to the ultimate tenacity and triumph of the good that is in the human spirit. Place the evil in the past; it does not have to be your present reality. Then you will let go of the curse over your life, little by little. Shachrer lanu, O, God. Liberate us, and help us free ourselves.
While we do not, and cannot, forgive evil, we can shift the focus from the offender, and the offense that he or she committed, to the deep and undying desire of the victim to regain equilibrium and control over their lives. Shachrira means regaining control over your life.
But wait, I hear you saying. You want me to forgive my partner who left me? You want me to forgive the person who abused me? You want me to forgive the person who committed a crime against me or someone I love?
And my answer is: yes, I want you to forgive them. Not to excuse them. Not to say what they did is acceptable, but to forgive as a way of saying that someone who would do any of these kinds of things has no right to live inside your head any more than they have a right to live inside your house. Why give a man or woman like that the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful person? They do not deserve that power over you.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches, forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable. When we understand that we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.
The world is filled with potential. The question “to forgive, or not to forgive?” is a fork in the road. Our choices are to change, to love, or to fear. To be forever tied to loss and pain, or to search for places where there is abundant love that is sustained by a source, deep and invisible, like an oasis in the desert.
Let it go.
Let it go and it no longer has a hold on you.
Letting it go denies its power over you.
Shachrer lanu, O God. Release us, and help us release ourselves. When we forgive, we learn to come to terms with the story of our lives, and release the pain of the past. When we forgive, we refuse to remain victims of those who hurt us. When we forgive, we refuse to let them continue to bring us pain-not across the miles, not across the years, not even across the grave. When we forgive, we choose life and love over death and fear. When we forgive the people closest to us, the living and the dead, when we heal the wounds and release old hurts, we will in fact become new people: more open, more loving, more confident, as we step forward into this New Year.
Keyn Yehi Ratzon.