Jews use the High Holidays
by Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor
Washington Jewish Week - October 19, 2008
To err is human, to forgive divine. - Alexander Pope, 1688-1744
Judaism says basically the same thing. That is, humans can emulate God by accepting a heartfelt apology, an act that has metaphysical merit as well as psychological benefit.
Simply put, Jewish tradition teaches that remorse alone cannot atone for a sin committed against another individual. God does not forgive the perpetrator until that person has been forgiven by the victim.
Hence, the custom of baring one's soul to another is a key component of the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which close today with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the chief deadline for the resolution of nagging interpersonal conflicts, among other important issues.
"It's a highly cathartic process," Rona Fields, a District-based clinical psychologist, said of the act of bestowing forgiveness, known in Hebrew as granting mechilah, or pardon. "It passes to the victim the power that he or she had lost in the original victimization. It's very important, and it sometimes gets lost in formulaic rituals."
Falls Church resident Geoff Michaelson, also a clinical psychologist, said the emphasis on sincerely making amends at this time of year demonstrates the inherent wisdom of Judaism.
"It involves something beyond mindfulness," he said, referring to a popular meditative concept that involves "awareness of living in the moment." He added: "It also takes into account your effect on another human being. It requires your soul, your heart and your mind as well as your body, since you have to walk over to another person and open your mouth. As a psychologist, I call this integration. It really pulls together the whole person."
Both Fields and Michaelson have themselves either sought or granted mechilah in a High Holidays context in conjunction with unresolved conflicts, some more traumatic than others.
Fields, for example, who attends Conservative Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District, once asked her daughter to forgive her as Yom Kippur approached. Her transgression: Not believing her daughter when she said she had been the target of "predatory sexual advances" by a former colleague of Fields'.
"I didn't listen to her," said Fields, 74, a District resident. "She kept trying to tell me about it, but I was so insensitive to what she was trying to tell me. I tried to rationalize it because I couldn't believe this person could behave that way. But the truth came out later." Her daughter, Fields said, eventually forgave her, "but not fully. I think she still carries that with her."
Fields' own father once pleaded for mechilah under somewhat similar circumstances, she said. As a teenager, she recounted, she had been molested by a relative by marriage who happened to be seeking a big loan from her father.
Her father, Fields said, believed the perpetrator when he pre-emptively professed his innocence, maintaining that Fields was "loose" and should be watched closely.
"My father was very angry at me for that," she said. "I cried, and I told him what had happened, but he didn't believe me."
Her father, Fields continued, asked her for forgiveness during the High Holidays some 20 years later when he realized what had actually transpired. Did she grant his request? "Of course I did," she said. "I cried horribly at the time and so did my father."
She added: "It was like a horrible weight had been lifted from me. I was relieved, because I loved my father more than anything else, and I was horrified that he had lost his trust in me. But that trust had been restored."
Michaelson, who attends Chabad in both Fairfax and Tysons Corner, said that this year he asked forgiveness of a rabbi with whom he has studied Torah. He sensed from a teasing remark the rabbi made that he had been overly contentious during their study sessions. "I thought that maybe I was not only disagreeing, but being disagreeable," Michaelson said. "He immediately forgave me on the spot."
Michaelson, 56, said the outcome of his exchange with the rabbi "was a relief to me; a concern I had was relieved. But I also felt that I had made a commitment to approach my [Torah] discussions in a different way in terms of how I was presenting my opinions." Heather Moran, a member of Reform Temple Micah in the District, said asking mechilah from others has been a critical element of her High Holidays ritual for years.
"What surprises me," she said, "is how surprised the other person usually is when you bring up the subject."
For example, last year, Moran, a resident of Kensington, was asked by a friend to forgive her "for something that had really been bothering her for a while." It involved a sarcastic remark the friend reportedly had made about Moran's son.
"I had no idea what she was talking about, but she was clearly mortified and the event had haunted her," said Moran, 35, who immediately granted her friend's request. "It clearly lifted a weight off her shoulders; I was so glad she had asked."
That episode and others like it, Moran said, "made me wonder what things I might have done to others that I wasn't aware of. It's made me much more willing to approach others at this time of year."
Still, making such an overture can often "take lots of humility and courage," she added, "because you don't always know what's going to take place on the other end of the conversation."
Moran said she can remember only once being turned down flat when she sought mechilah. As a teenager, she recalled, her synagogue youth adviser (not at her current congregation) had made it clear that he was displeased with her efforts on behalf of a synagogue-related activity.
He rejected her request for forgiveness. "He actually turned me down in shul," Moran reported. "I remember thinking that his response was not Jewish. But it was crushing at the time. It hurts."
Several classical Jewish texts, including the Talmud, explicitly state that in virtually all cases the victim of a sin is obligated to forgive the perpetrator, and thus emulate a compassionate God.
In that respect, Moran said she also takes her cue from her late mother, who was always ready to grant mechilah. "I learned through her how to forgive," she said.
Although making amends is potentially uplifting, it can also be an unsettling process because "it involves getting near those who you've had bad blood with" and raising the possibility of opening up old wounds, said Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk of Reform Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston.
For example, Nosanchuk said he once sought forgiveness via e-mail from someone who had told him nearly 20 years earlier that he never wanted to speak to him again.
"The response was lightning fast and specific," he said, explaining that his apology was summarily rejected. "It was as if the [original] event had happened only a week or a month ago. It startled me, but when I read it carefully, I was absolutely certain the person was right."
Nosanchuk said he and his correspondent mended fences, however, after exchanging more e-mails. "Once that happened," he said, "I felt the impact of growth and maturity and responsibility taking hold. I'm the same person, but I've grown through the experience."
The possibility of achieving rapprochement with an old friend named Dawn has prompted Arlington resident Erica Steen, 36, to seriously consider reaching out to her.
They had known each other since eighth grade, but became alienated from each other about 10 years ago when Dawn was going through a difficult period in her life, reported Steen, director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
"I should have been the friend I had always been and asked her what was going on," Steen, a member of Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation in the District, said when contacted on Rosh Hashanah eve. "I should have offered my support and helped her through whatever problems she was having. Instead, I decided that I lived 500 miles away and that it was just easier to back off."
She added: "I think there's been a part of me over these years that has felt horrible about severing our friendship. I've grown up a lot over the past couple of years. For some reason, I have a different perspective [on] life now and feel it's time to make things right. I'm nervous; I've never had to ask forgiveness from someone that I truly wronged in the past, but it's time."