“No, It’s Not OK”: On The Morality of Not Forgiving

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary, AB, 2016/5777

By Rabbi Mark Glickman

She is a woman I’ll call “Gail.” She was in her early forties, a mother of three, energetic and active in the congregation and in a host of other activities. People who knew her said that her enthusiasm and exuberance were contagious.

But there was something different about Gail the day she came into my office. When she said hello, her voice wasn’t quite as peppy as usual. Her hair was a little unkempt, her clothes slightly rumpled, and her eyes looked tired…almost defeated.

She sat down, stared at the ceiling for a moment, and then finally spoke up. “Rabbi,” she said, “my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah is next month, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah?” I said. “You know what to do – you bring a nice gift, you go to the service, you stand up and you sit down a few times, you say ‘Mazel Tov’ – it’s easy. You know that.”

“No,” she said, “you don’t understand. My Uncle Joe is going to be there.”

“Uncle Joe?”

“Yes, Uncle Joe. When I was a little girl,” Gail said. “Uncle Joe lived with us for a couple of years after he got out of school. And whenever my parents went out and left me at home with him, Uncle Joe did horrible things to me. Horrible. So horrible that it’s hard for me even to describe them. He told me not to tell anyone, and threatened me with even more horrible things if I did. And until recently, Rabbi, I never said a word.

“Well, eventually,” Gail continued, “Uncle Joe moved out – thank God – and since then I’ve tried to lock up my memories of what he did to me and put then away. But the problem is that, a couple of times a year, I see Uncle Joe at family events. Since I was a kid, he’s never said word-one to me about those things he did, but whenever I see him…it’s like my memory trunk bursts open and all those terrible experiences fly out and attack me again. Just seeing his face makes all of the pain and the terror come back. It’s gotten to the point, rabbi, where I don’t even want to go to those family events anymore.

“And that’s why my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah is an issue.”

Gail sat quietly, looking down at her hands. Finally, I asked, “So, what are you going to do?”

“Well that’s the thing,” she said. “I don’t know. A few weeks ago, I finally told my mother about everything that happened back then. She was mortified, of course – she felt horrible that it happened, and furious at Uncle Joe. But when we talked a few days later, she said, ‘Gail, I’ve been thinking about this. What Uncle Joe did to you…nobody should have had to endure that…and I can tell that you’ve been living with this pain for a long time. But you’ll never be able to be done with this until you can forgive Uncle Joe and move on. He’s obviously not going to apologize, but what you can do, Dear, is be the better person and forgive him so that you can finally put the pain behind you.’

“What she said made sense to me, Rabbi” Gail said. “I do want to let go of all my pain and anger more than anything. But the problem is that I can’t do it. Whenever I even think about Uncle Joe, I go back to that horrible place again, and I have to stop. My mom says I should be the better person, but I don’t think I can that better person….and I feel horrible about it.

“Then,” Gail continued, “I shared all of this with my friend Jill – she goes to the church down the street. Jill agreed with my mom. ‘We talk about this all the time in church,’ Jill said. ‘God forgives us for all of our sins, and the godly thing to do is to find the love within our hearts to forgive those who have wronged us, as well.’”

“And you know what?” Gail asked. “My therapist agrees with them both. He says that as long as I hold onto my anger, then I’m going to hold onto the pain, as well. He says that if I want the pain to stop, the first thing I need to do is to forgive old Uncle Joe and be done with him.

“Rabbi,” Gail said. “I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I just can’t do it. I cannot forgive that man.

“Does this mean that I’m an unloving person?” Gail asked. “Does it mean that I’m weak? Does it mean I’m bad? What am I supposed to do?”

***

My friends, we in our community have been talking a lot about atonement for the past several days – about what to do when you’re the one who does something wrong. But we haven’t given nearly as much attention to the forgiveness side of the equation – about what to do when you’re the victim of someone else’s wrongdoing. Here, it’s clear that Uncle Joe has a lot of atonement to do (which he probably won’t do at all). But what about Gail? What guidance can our tradition offer her? Should she forgive Uncle Joe, or shouldn’t she?

Well the fact is that, to be honest, classical Judaism doesn’t say a whole lot about forgiveness. This most sacred day of the Jewish year, remember, is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, not the Day of Forgiveness. Our tradition places its emphasis not on forgiving others for what they did wrong, but on earning forgiveness for the things that we did wrong. Our focus these days isn’t on what other people have done, but on what we’ve done.

There is some sense to that, of course. As a religion, Judaism’s greatest concern is the perfection of our broken world. And to perfect our world, we’d all do much better to focus on improving ourselves rather than worry about what to do when others harm us.

Nevertheless, Judaism doesn’t completely ignore the question of forgiveness. What our tradition says is that in order for a wrongdoer to be forgiven, he or she first needs to complete a huge prerequisite – and that prerequisite is teshuvah, atonement. For a person to earn forgiveness, he or she has to atone first.

Remember, atonement is much more than saying “I’m sorry.” In fact, atonement – teshuvah, the work that a wrongdoer is responsible for doing – is a five-step process in our religion. You accept responsibility for your wrongdoing, you change your behavior, you apologize, you compensate your victims, and you maintain your change over the long haul. In other words: Own up, change up, ‘fess up, pay up, and keep it up. It’s really hard; it involves genuine change; it demands true humility; and, done right, it demonstrates supreme nobility of character.

If you are the victim of a wrongdoing, Judaism says that you owe the wrongdoer forgiveness only if the wrongdoer is sincerely remorseful, only if he or she is truly changing and is genuinely on the path to self-betterment. If the person is not apologetic, if they’re not changing, if they’re not doing their teshuvah, then you don’t owe that person squat in the forgiveness department.

If a man gets caught having an affair, and responds with a sticky-sweet “I’m sorry” that she can see is a crock, then she doesn’t need to forgive him until he truly apologizes and truly changes. If your mother speaks cruelly to you, and then a few days later, snaps “I’m sorry, now can we go out to dinner,” then she doesn’t get your forgiveness. The little boy who threw sand in the girl’s face at the playground and drones out an “I’m sorry” only because his parents tell him to and he wants them to let go of his arm? He might be off the hook with Mom and Dad, but Judaism says that the little girl with sand in her eyes owes him no forgiveness at all.

And of course, if those who offer phony apologies don’t earn forgiveness, then those who offer no apologies certainly don’t, either. The boss is having a bad day and reams you out for something you don’t deserve to be scolded for. The furniture delivery truck shows up three hours late and the driver doesn’t even say a word about her tardiness. A friend breaks a confidence and doesn’t own up to what he’s done. None of these people have earned our forgiveness, and our Jewish tradition says that we shouldn’t give it to them.

In fact, it goes even further. If someone does something wrong to you, and then offers you either a phony apology or no apology at all, then even if you want to forgive them, you’re really not supposed to. Jewish law doesn’t allow us to let them off the hook until they’ve turned it around. On the other hand, if that person does apologize and you can tell that he or she really is repentant, and really is in the process of change, then even if you don’t want to forgive that person, you really have to.

The case of the philandering husband who offers a lame excuse for an apology is a good example. His wife might very well want to forgive him just then. She might look into his eyes and remember all his good qualities, or she might just feel scared of what might happen if she withholds her forgiveness. But our tradition insists that she hold him to a high moral standard and not forgive him until he’s truly earned it. If, on the other hand he really does offer a sincere apology – one that’s part of a process of real teshuvah – then she really should forgive him even though she still might want to wring the guy’s neck.

Now I hasten to add here that this woman could forgive her husband and still not speak to him…or still not even be married to him. In fact, the rabbis don’t ever seem to have connected forgiveness with connectedness. As far as the rabbis are concerned, you can forgive somebody, but still cut them off and not have a relationship with them. The wife of this adulterous husband could very rightly say, “You’ve wronged me. You’ve apologized. I can tell that you’re sincere and that you’re changing. I forgive you. Now here are your divorce papers. Be on your way.” And on the other hand, if she refuses to forgive her unfaithful husband, she could still stay married to him if she wants. She could say, “You know what, he’s yet not where he needs to be, but I’m not going to leave this marriage so quickly. Yes, he needs to change, and I’m going to give him some time to get there. I don’t forgive him, but I’m still with him…and for now that’s OK.”

Forgiveness, you see, doesn’t necessarily mean making nicey-nice, nor does refusal to forgive necessarily entail the end of a relationship. Instead, forgiveness simply means wiping the debts clean-away. It means saying, “We’re good. You’ve finally done right and no longer owe me. Now let’s move on with our lives and do what we need to do.

In my own life, there are a lot of people who have wronged me and never apologized. I’m sure the same is the case for you. I think they should apologize, and while I still hope they do, most probably won’t. But you know what? I can live with that. They haven’t earned my forgiveness yet, but life is complicated, and in these cases my relationships with them are strong enough to withstand the fact that they still owe me an apology.

I had a great aunt who was killed in a car accident at the age of 19 in the early 1920’s. Apparently she was a wonderful, vivacious young woman, and her death was understandably devastating for her family. From what we understand, the man who killed her made some sort of mistake while he was driving. He wasn’t drunk; he wasn’t overly negligent; he just made a horrible, tragic error. He was also African-American, so without much of a trial, he went straight to prison for a few years. According to family lore, the first thing that man did when he got out of prison was to go to my great-grandparents’ house and apologize for having killed their daughter.

I don’t know how my great-grandparents responded to that man at their doorstep. But I think it would have been perfectly within their rights to say, “Thank you very much for coming, sir. While we can’t speak for our daughter, we can accept your apology for the pain that you’ve caused us, and we appreciate that you’ve come here to offer it. Now please step away from the threshold of our home, and don’t ever come back. We forgive you, and we never want to see you again.”

When it happens – and when it happens right – forgiveness can do wonderful things. It can heal and strengthen a troubled marriage; it can restore important friendships; it can even forge close relationships between people who first met when one wronged the other. So we should forgive and embrace whenever we can. But the bottom line is this: If you want, you can maintain relationships with people who have wronged you even though you haven’t forgiven them. And similarly, just because you’ve forgiven someone, that doesn’t mean you have to remain their friend.

So what about Gail? Her mother, her churchgoing friend, and her therapist all encouraged her to forgive Uncle Joe, even though Uncle Joe had never said “boo” about the horrible things he did to her when she was a girl. In fact, there are a lot of people today who say that we should forgive everyone who has ever wronged us, regardless of whether the wrongdoers have owned up to what they’ve done.

I find that suggestion abhorrent. What these people are saying to Gail is that she should turn to her child-molester Uncle Joe and say to him, “Uncle Joe, when I was a girl, you treated me like a piece of meat. You denied me the respect and dignity that I deserved as a human being, you exploited my vulnerability, and you used me to satisfy your own perverted desires. But ya’ know what? Don’t worry about it, Uncle Joe. No big deal. Let’s just put this whole thing behind us and be friends, OK?”

What kind of person with any moral compass whatsoever would suggest that Gail say such a thing?

But it was even worse. Gail’s mother and friend and therapist all pressured Gail to forgive her uncle. They implied – and sometimes even said outright – that if Gail were a strong and healthy person, if Gail was a good person – she’d forgive this guy. That’s even more abhorrent!  Gail was the victim here – Uncle Joe was the bad guy! And now these people are trying to put the onus of making the relationship right on Gail’s shoulders. They should have felt ashamed of themselves.

The suggestion they made would have been almost laughable if it weren’t so common. Victims today are besieged with this kind vapid nonsense and psycho-drivel telling them that they should forgive anyone who has ever done anything wrong to them. Gail shouldn’t forgive Uncle Joe. She should report him. And she should keep children away from him. And if she ever does decide to speak to him, she should remind him of the horrible, horrible things he did to her when she was a child and not let him off the hook. At least yet – not until he does a whole lot of work to right his terrible wrong

So what would I want for Gail? My hope for her would not be that she could forgive, but rather that she could heal – that she could somehow get to the point where her memories of what Uncle Joe did to her wouldn’t paralyze her with pain like they did when she came to speak with me. I’m not sure how she could get there, but what I know wouldn’t help would be to have her say, “Don’t worry about it, Uncle Joe. No big deal. Forget about it.”

Don’t forgive your wrongdoers who haven’t atoned. Expect more of them. Don’t say “They’re only human, they’re going to mess up sometimes.” Say instead “They are human beings; they have the awesome ability to acknowledge their wrongdoings and make them right, and I won’t forgive them until they do.” The terrible irony here is that refusing to forgive an unrepentant sinner isn’t mean or cruel; it is respectful – deeply and profoundly respectful. To say “I don’t forgive you…at least not yet…not until you’ve righted your wrong” really says, “Yes, you did something wrong to me, but I know you can be better. In fact I insist that you be better and that you fulfill your moral potential, and I won’t be satisfied with anything less.”

Now I can already hear the objections coming from some of you. Already, there are those among you who are planning to come up to me after services and say something like, “Rabbi, you’re not really understanding what it means to forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean telling someone that what they did was OK, it just means letting go of the hurt and the anger inside you.”

Well, if you’re among the swelling ranks ready to say this to me, let me save you the trouble. You see, “letting go of the hurt and the anger,” getting to a point where the memories stop bringing so much pain – that’s not forgiving, that’s what’s called healing. That’s an internal process for victims to do on their own – hopefully with the help and support of loved ones. But forgiving is something that happens in a relationship between two people. Think about forgiveness in terms of a debt. If Sam owes me money, and I can’t get Sam to pay up, I might eventually realize that I’m just not going to get my money back. At that point, it would probably be best for me to write it off – to stop losing sleep over it, resolve never to lend Sam any more money, and move on. I would have let it go; I would have let Sam’s unpaid debt stop gnawing at me, and proceeded with my life despite the fact that Sam is a deadbeat. But I wouldn’t have forgiven Sam’s debt. And even though I might have written it off, if you were ever to ask me afterwards whether Sam owes me money, I would say yes! I would have healed from Sam’s wrongdoing, but I wouldn’t have forgiven him his debt.

Well in Gail’s case, we’re not talking about money, we’re talking about Joe’s huge moral and emotional debt to her. Joe has wronged Gail, and he owes her an apology and much, much more. Of course, he probably won’t ever even try to pay up, and we would all hope that Gail could live a good life despite her memories. But asking her to forgive him is asking her to treat what happened as if it’s all good now, and as if it’s nothing to worry about. But it’s not all good now. It is still something to worry about. It’s a horrible, horrible debt that only Uncle Joe can repay.

Even when we’re subjected to lesser wrongs – when someone cheats us, or speaks hurtfully to us, or messes up our front lawn – it’s good when we can contain our fury or hurt enough to move on with our lives, but moving on doesn’t make the ugly things that these people did OK. Moving on is one thing; it’s an internal process of healing. Forgiving, however, is entirely different. Forgiving is what can happen only when people work together to restore their broken relationships.

In the end, it comes down to this: To suggest that a person should forgive everyone, regardless of whether they’ve earned that forgiveness, is to suggest that we do away with the very notion of right and wrong, for if a person can automatically get off the hook for his or her every misdeed, then we might as well not call anything a misdeed to begin with.

My friends, we are part of a tradition that for many centuries has stood for human decency, and compassion, and kindness – a moral code to which we hold not only ourselves, but other people as well. When you see other people failing to fulfill these great, sacred values, it is up to you to affirm those values. When others smile and tell you to forgive their uncorrected evil, it is up to you to be firm, and say, “No, my friend, you need to earn that forgiveness. You can do better, and you should.” And when they respond by telling you that forgiveness is the ultimate good, you tell them that, no, good is the ultimate good, and that as a Jew and as a human being you will remain unrelenting in your commitment not to forgiveness, but instead to the far more fundamental values of decency, compassion and kindess.

This is what it means to be a Jew; this is what it means to stand for righteousness; and this, my friends, is what I pray we all have the strength to do during this year, and in all other years to come.

Shanah Tovah.

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