Letting Go

Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Kol Nidre 5780

Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, would tell this story. Shortly after Wiesenthal is liberated, a man asks if he can borrow $10.  Week after week, the man comes to say he cannot pay it back. Excuse after excuse. Weeks turn into months, and finally the man comes to Wiesenthal to say “Here’s the $10, my visa came through, I am going to Canada.”  Wiesenthal looks at the man and says “Nevermind.  Keep the money.  For $10, it’s not worth changing my opinion of you.”

A grudge can feel so good.  One commentator jokes “revenge is sweeter than honey” (Rabbi Moshe Cham Luzzato).  The entitlement, the righteous indignation– that power can serve, as a source of confidence.

And yet, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God proclaims “I will not look upon you in anger, for I am compassionate; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”  Striving to emulate God, tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Torah in the Holiness Code: Do not bear a grudge.

This Yom Kippur, what would it mean to heed the message of Leviticus– to release a grudge? Would you even want to relinquish that power?

Israeli-American Jewish filmmaker Hanan Harchol, imagines this very conversation with his own father.  In a story called “Landlord,” Hanan tells his father he just got a text from his friend David.  He and David had not spoken in two years.

Hanan says to his dad, “Remember that animation job I applied to when I moved to New York?”

“The one you did not get?  That was years ago! Who cares about that now?”

“After I got the rejection letter, I found out that David got the position.”

“So?” his father asks.

“He didn’t know about the position until I told him about it.  I had asked him to be one of my references.  Somehow his reference letter ended up getting lost in the mail.  And he applied for the job, himself.”

His father gasps at the betrayal: “Unbelievable!  What a shmendrick!”

“Every time I think about it, I get angry.  So, what do you think I should do?”

“Forgive him.”

“Why are you defending what he did?”

“I would never defend what David did.  It was terrible!  But I’m not talking about what he did.  I’m talking about what you can do.”

“Why would I ever want to forgive him… I’ll lose all self-respect.”

“I just hope he’s paying his rent.”

“Paying me?? He stole from me. What are you talking about??”

“He’s living inside your head.  He’s obviously taking up a lot of room. I mean, when did this happen?  Two years ago?  And you’re still talking about him? ”

“Living in my head.  Rent free.  I never thought about it that way.”

“Listen, Hanan, when someone does something that hurts us, it’s natural to get angry.  I got angry when I heard about it too.  But how long you hang on to the anger, that’s your choice.”

“But if I forgive, he gets away with it.  I want revenge.  I want him to suffer.  I want justice”

“But how does that help you?  Does it improve your life?  We have a finite amount of time. You can choose if the person you want to be in this world, is one who resents, or one who forgives.”

“It’s really hard to be forgiving.”

(excerpts from https://www.hananharchol.com/watch-landlord)

I agree with Hanan: It’s really hard to be forgiving.  And as if it weren’t hard enough we often distort the meaning of forgiveness, making it even harder. Hanan Harchol’s story, “Landlord,” chips away at three misconceptions and offers Jewish corrections: first misconception- forgiveness requires justice; second misconception- forgiveness indicates condoning and reconciliation; and third misconception- there’s always tomorrow.

When it comes to a grudge, is the wrongdoer’s suffering really “sweeter than honey?”  It’s an understandable inclination, to yearn for justice.  Yet, our tradition proposes a challenging principle about forgiveness: this is the one time, justice does not matter.

In a surprising teaching, the Talmud imagines that when God sees us repent for our wrongs, it makes God want to repent.  It’s a beautiful notion, but why does God need to apologize? God feels remorse for creating evil—so our problems started with God.  But wait a minute, Torah scholar Dena Weiss argues, then shouldn’t the process be the other way around?  If, in this metaphor, God permitted us to travel the wrong path in the first place, shouldn’t God be the one to step up and apologize first!?  Yes, Weiss teaches, that would be more fair.  But fairness is not the point.  When we enter a “but she did it first” mindset, we become stuck. If we cannot move beyond justice, we cannot move towards letting go.  Jewish wisdom is clear: the expectation of fairness is a misconception—an obstacle that can hold us back.  And forgiveness is already hard enough.

Perhaps not for all of us, but for most, at least somewhere under the surface, lies resentment — the shmendrick living in our head, rent-free. The landlord image, comes from a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist who devotes much of his work to 12 Step/ Recovery counseling.  Rabbi Twerski learned the landlord image in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and realized it matches perfectly to Judaism’s understanding of resentment.  Because when we’re talking about forgiveness, the issue is not the offender, and the issue is not even the offense.  To forgive is not to condone.  To forgive is not to declare: you were not wounded.  And to forgive is not to reconcile.  

Sometimes reconciliation follows, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s healthier for certain people to no longer be a regular part of our lives.  Sometimes a resolution that allows us to simply send a birthday card, or to be in the same room without strife at a family Bar Mitzvah is a goal.  But pure forgiveness only involves letting go.

The Hebrew root for the word grudge means “to keep guard.”  The English word resentment means to “feel again.”  (And again!)  The energy we devote to guarding our resentment, and to feeling anger again and again, does not repair the injury or hurt the offender.  The very grudge that initially feels powerful, comes to weigh us down, keeping us captive in its bitterness.  Resentment might be directed toward another person, against God for life’s profound disappointments, or even against ourselves, for our own past decisions.  Holding its power over us, the anger becomes our burden to bear.  The burden may show up in the form of frustration, or a physical ailment, or in the form of rage that leaks into other relationships. The Talmud teaches: Whoever bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand, while slicing with a knife, avenges himself, by stabbing the other hand.  When we harbor resentment, we hurt ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls, forgiveness pekuach neshamah/ saving a spirit.  Whose spirit are we saving? Not the offender’s—we are not redeeming the person with whom we are in conflict — we are saving our own spirit.

I chose to speak tonight, about resentment, because I believe it is a common challenge.  I am not focused on the rare tragic circumstance—the parent who forgives his child’s murderer.  We are more likely to find need for forgiveness efforts in difficult but common fractures— workplace conflict, family abuse, marital infidelity, relationship betrayal.

I have been struck by the tremendous number of family estrangements to which I have exposure in my role as your rabbi.  Family members devote significant effort to keep the ruptures quiet—we do not know that this pain exists in the lives of our friends.  Then, when there is a death and the mourners should be able to devote energy to their grief, instead there is only enough energy available to fortify the walls and prepare: what if so-and-so shows up.

A widow granted me permission to share her story.  An elderly man is in hospice care, and does not want his son to visit.  They had a business-related falling out years ago, and the father does not let it go.  He draws his last breath, still clinging to the anger.

After his death, the widow’s attention focuses on the questions: Will the son attend?  Where will he sit? What will we say?

The day of the funeral arrives and the son shows up.  The widow attempts to maintain the grudge, with the intention of honoring the deceased’s wishes.  And the son does not want to cause trouble, so he sits in the very back row.  I am with the widow who is in the front row, and we are about to begin kriya—the tearing of the ribbon— when the she says “Wait.  Can we invite him to join us?”   After together tearing the ribbon, the widow somehow determines she can help the family tear away its divisions as well.  She asks the son to stay.  He joins her in the front row.  Each able to let go, at least for this moment.  It does not require condoning.  It does not require denying wounds.  It does not require reconciling.  Only letting go, enough to move forward.

Jewish wisdom is clear: the expectation of reconciliation, is a misconception, that can hold us back; in order to pekuach neshamah,/save a spirit, we need to let go.

And we do not have forever.  We have a finite number of days, and we do not know, when our last will come.

Matthew O’Reilly is a paramedic.  As a first responder, O’Reilly encounters people in their last moments of life.  Some, he concedes, experience terror; but many, he insists, express a sense of inner-peace and acceptance.  At the end of our lives, what makes the difference, between terror and inner-peace? O’Reilly says, it’s whether or not we have undone business.  It’s forgiveness—have I forgiven, and have I been forgiven.  Ask hospice workers; they say the same.  Unresolved conflicts bring terror and unrest. To help someone towards peace, facilitate forgiveness.

The depth of Jewish ritual tradition includes a deathbed vidui – a deathbed confession – a final chance to confess our wrongs, and to find peace.  That deathbed confession – death itself— is what we imitate on Yom Kippur.  In the fasting –we imitate death today.  With white–the color of the burial shroud –adorning our Torah scrolls, we imitate death today.  The fragility in the Unetane Tokef prayer, the desperation in the Confession, the emptiness of the ark, moments ago, reminding us of our own coffin, propels us to confront the truth: none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  As we plead with God to forgive us, the ritual pleads with us, to forgive others. The only thing we know for sure is that we are mortal.  If you have wrongs you need to right, if you have people –-or yourself or God– you need to forgive, do not wait!

Jewish wisdom is clear: the illusion that we live forever, can mask the urgency, and hold us back from pekuach neshamah/ saving our spirit.

Make the most of this sacred season. Permit our tradition to drive your teshuvah, as if everything were at stake, because it is.  Hear the words of our text, take in the depths of our ritual.  With an open heart, see your casket, feel your hunger, speak your confession, offer your forgiveness.  All, as if it were for the last time.  With forgiveness: may we pekuach neshamah/ save a spirit.  Save our own spirit.