Forgiveness is Freedom

This week's article is by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, former Rosh Kollel Boca Raton (1999-2006), Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement

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Torah Mitzion

Two sisters in their early eighties are sitting on the couch. One turns to the other and whispers - with the pent up bitterness of decades clearly articulated in her words – “Mummy always loved you more than me!”
This dialogue was related to me by the son of one of the women, upon his return from a visit with his mother and aunt. And I could not help but experience such incredulousness and horror. Do people really carry with them to the grave such seething and poisonous resentment? Do we not appreciate the burden that we place upon ourselves when we weigh ourselves down with such grudges? Indeed, it seems that such things are the very fabric of the tragic lives that many of us live.
It does not have to be like that. The Torah admonishes us (Leviticus 19:17-18) “not to resent your brother in your heart”, and “not to bear a grudge” – we are to confront the past, forgive, and move on. And if we fail to do so all year round, our tradition provides us with one national day of forgiveness every year.
Yes, Yom Kippur is about forgiveness. We are forgiven for our sins, and allowed to move forward with our lives with a clean slate. But as our sages say (Tractate Megila 28a): “Whose sin is forgiven? He who forgives those who have sinned against him”. We are not granted forgiveness by God until we ourselves have bestowed that gift upon others. As much as this is a day on which God forgives us, it is first and foremost a day on which we bestow forgiveness.
And it could not be otherwise. The purpose of Divine forgiveness is to give us a second chance at the art of living, to provide the opportunity to try again and succeed without the outcome in the future being prejudiced by the failings of the past. The forgiveness of the Master of the universe releases the trajectory of the future from the momentum of the past. But God cannot release us unless we agree to be released. God cannot grant us the future while we still self-destructively insist on holding on to the pain of the past. To obstinately nurse our grievances is a decision to give that past suffering mastery over the future. It is to passively acquiesce to letting other’s deeds control us, it is to allow ourselves to be imprisoned by what others have done to us, and to be locked into a sequence of emotion that may never end. The present as well as the future are then overwhelmed and consumed by the past.
On Yom Kippur God begs us to allow Him to forgive. The liturgy cries out and beseeches us to free ourselves from the albatross of past grievances, of simmering resentments, of hidden anger. We must extricate ourselves from the shackles that prevent us from fulfilling our potential. God will do his part, but only if we allow Him to do so. We must realize that in so many cases it is we who keep ourselves chained to the past. Only when we cleanse our hearts and open the Book of Remembrance within to a fresh page, will God open His Book of Remembrance to a fresh page.
So yes, forgiveness is God’s gift to us on Yom Kippur. But we open ourselves up to that gift only when we bestow it upon others. God wants us to march forward to our future with confidence. He wants to forgive us. If only we will let Him.