Living a Forgiving Life

Drashah 2023/5784

How many times have you been out to dinner with friends and someone looks at you and your spouse or your partner and asks: “So, how did you guys meet?” Or someone meets you and your good friend and asks, “So, how do you two know each other?” Such a sweet, innocent question, giving us the chance to retell our origin stories as couples, as classmates, or even as colleagues. Who doesn’t love telling that story? 

Now what if you were out to dinner with friends and someone looks at you and your spouse or partner and asks, “So, how does it feel being married to each other for 16, or 25, or 40 years?” Or at you and a friend asks, “So, what’s it like being friends with each other?” Or, “So, how do you two like being business partners; how do you manage your relationship?

Those are totally different questions. And they’re ones we’re often taught NOT to ask. We’re taught that they’re inappropriate to ask. We’re not used to people asking us those questions, and we’re not always comfortable answering them. Why not? Because love and relationships are complicated. And why is it anyone else’s business, anyway? 

But, they may be just the right questions we should be asking each other.

In his book, The Course of Love, Alain de Botton notes that, “...we know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.”  Music, literature and movies today focus so much on the extremes of love -- either the blissful marathon relationships or the horrible ones that end in disaster.  Most of us are left thinking that our ongoing struggles with our partners, our parents, our kids and our friends are signals that our relationships are in grave crisis, rather than them being signals that our relationships are going exactly according to plan.

Here’s the unvarnished truth: when choosing a spouse, a friend or a colleague, no matter whom we meet and choose, we end up with the wrong person. Guaranteed. We will be disappointed. And we will be disappointing. Each and every one of us. 

We’ve each got bumps and bruises from life that have left us less than perfect, to say the least. As de Botton reminds us: “No one among us has come through unscathed. We were all (necessarily) less than ideally parented: we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analyzing our worries, we lie and scatter blame where it doesn’t belong.”  Choosing a partner or a friend is simply a matter of choosing whose blemishes we’re prepared to live with and what kind of struggles we’re prepared to endure. 

But all is not lost! De Botton says what we should strive for in love is “enlightened romantic pessimism”. Sounds exciting. Not. What he means is that we should realize that one person can’t be everything to another, and that the best we can do is learn to live with and accommodate the inherent limitations of our lovers, and those of our parents, siblings, children and friends. We have to accept that no one will ever totally understand us, or be able to completely see things our way, or behave in exactly the ways we want them to. It’s just not possible. There are no perfect relationships; only “good enough” relationships.

In spite of all the messaging out there that says that the right spouse/friend/colleague for us is the one who shares our sensibilities, in reality, de Botton clarifies, “[T]he partner best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace...It’s the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the ‘right’ person.

My favorite insight of his is how de Botton assures us that compatibility is not a precondition of love, it’s an achievement of love.

These are often painful discoveries we make over the course of our lives. Some take a long time to accept. When we’re young, we look up to our parents as if they know everything we need them to know and can do everything we need them to do. And we adore them for it. Until we discover that they don’t and they can’t; that they aren’t perfect, and may in fact be deeply flawed; that they can’t provide us with everything we need, or protect us from getting hurt. We start blaming them for our disappointments -- in ourselves and in others -- until, eventually, and mercifully, we realize that our parents, like us, wrestle with their own fears, vulnerabilities, anxieties and failures, and we accept that we can’t deny them their limitations any more than we can ourselves our own, and that we can’t pin all of our own pain on them.  

It’s incredible, de Botton points out, how patient and generous adults are with children. When a young child is tantruming, parents try to figure out what the source of their discomfort is: are they tired, hungry, hurt? The assumption is that their kids are actually good people who will return to being pleasant as soon as their issues are resolved. How come adults don’t treat each other with even a smidgen of the same patience and trust? How come we don’t look past each other’s grumpiness and nastiness for the fear, exhaustion or anxiety that lies beneath them?

With children we’re able to set aside our frustration and even our vindictiveness. We can adjust our expectations, be slower to anger, and be kind and generous. Adults, too, can be childlike -- playful, vulnerable, frightened, and needy. “It’s a wonderful thing to live in a world where so many people are nice to children,” de Botton admits. But, “It would be even better if we lived in one where we are a little nicer to the childlike sides of one another.”  

It’s also not just about accepting other people’s “madness” as de Botton calls it, rather cheekily.  It’s also about accepting our own madness.

A well-adjusted person who can own their anger, their mistakes, their quirkiness, their different way of looking at things -- all without shame or insecurity -- must have learned along the way to trust in their own acceptability. Parents who love their kids without demanding that everything about them be perfect; parents who tolerate their children’s idiosyncrasies, moodiness, weird tastes and outlandish opinions all while making them feel secure in their family’s love give kids the courage to emerge into the world with all their personal bundles and baggage, confident that they’ll be worthy of other people’s respect and affection. 

I often explain to my kids: when I say “I love you” as I do countless times a day, I’m not only telling them how deeply I feel for them, but I’m trying to make sure they know that they deserve to be loved, that they’re lovable, that they’re worthy of love -- their own, and others.

Rabbi Heschel said, “The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life." And he’s right. The process of teshuvah, of repentance and renewal, involves feeling remorseful, even feeling some shame, for the ways in which we fail to do good and be kind. But we have to carefully balance that self-reproach with awareness of those parts of ourselves that may be flawed, but nonetheless are intrinsic to who we are. That doesn’t mean not caring about how the more difficult parts of our personalities are experienced by others. But it does mean that in addition to forgiving others for their flaws, we need to forgive ourselves for ours. This, too, is part of teshuvah.

The spiritual work of these High Holy Days is more than “repentance”, more than turning away from sin and seeking forgiveness. Teshuvah is, essentially, a returning to the root and the hope of human nature -- a much more encompassing undertaking.

In the Midrash, Adam was the first person to do teshuvah after he realized he betrayed God in the Garden of Eden and sought reconciliation with the Divine. Re-establishing intimacy and trust, not just forgiveness, is what his teshuvah was  about. In Judaism, it’s not about recreating innocence; there’s no Disney-like fantasy of “wiping the slate clean”. What’s done is done.  But initiating a renewed relationship, a more mature one, one that has deepened and evolved for having struggled with betrayal, is the goal and promise of teshuvah -- seeking and granting forgiveness towards this larger, more profound transformation. No wonder teshuvah was one of seven things created before the creation of the world, for human life couldn’t exist, couldn’t be sustained, without this process of coming home to one another after our inevitable failures. 

The mystics understand teshuvah, this returning to the root of human nature, as having cosmic echoes. All manifestations of life are created from the same Divine womb and all yearn to return to our shared Source. As the contemporary scholar of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Art Green, explains, our human efforts to reach out to the holy One “is as whole and natural as the tree’s stretching to grow toward the sunlight or the roots sinking deeper into the earth in their quest for water.” Or as Rav Kook put it, “It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life.”  

The impulse to return to our primal core, to return to a state of connection and peace with each other, is the very impulse that makes us human; that makes us part of the indivisible Oneness of Life itself. 

On these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, when we speak about doing an accounting of our souls, of being judged, of atonement, it’s tempting to think that achieving teshuvah is accomplished through discrete acts of seeking and granting forgiveness. I pick up the phone and say to someone I’ve wronged, “I’m sorry for hurting you, please forgive me.” Hopefully they say “I forgive you”, and the deed is done. That’s what we call mechila, as in “Do you “mochel” me? It comes from the Hebrew root which means to pay a claim. It doesn’t have to be an overly emotional exchange; it could be simple and straightforward. “I’m sorry”. “It’s ok”. And the debt is paid.

Two other words for forgiveness lead us closer to what we’re talking about: selicha and kaparaSelicha, which means “to forgive”, suggests a deeper reckoning with the pain caused to one another and an acceptance of each other’s imperfections. Kapara, what we call atonement, refers to the restoration of wholeness that comes from facing the gaps in our lives honestly, and repairing and reinforcing -- not erasing -- the fault lines in our relationships.

But to really achieve what we’re talking about is to do more than initiate a process of settling emotional debts or seeking forgiveness in specific seasons or moments or interactions. To really achieve that larger understanding of teshuvah, of returning to our essence, is to cultivate an inner disposition of compassion and humility that permeates every moment of every day and every interaction. It’s not to be forgiving now and then; it’s to lead a forgiving life. Forgiveness is not something you request or grant, but it’s an attribute that defines your whole being. Forgiveness is a way of life.

This is a much more daunting challenge than going through the High Holy Day season’s often uncomfortable steps of reaching out to people we’ve hurt and apologizing to them. Or reaching out to people who have hurt us and sharing with them that we feel unresolved about something. That’s something that we can do; this is someone we can be. But it’s someone who can be a lifetime in the making.

When my father died five years ago from end-stage dementia, my loss of him was compounded by 41 years of negotiating his absence from my life as a loving and reliable presence after my parents divorced when I was 9, and of struggling for decades to find some connection that was workable for us both. When his illness began to unfold six years earlier and I sensed that the man who gave me life but with whom I wrestled to share it was fading from us, I had to make a choice as to how I was going to spend whatever time we had left together. 

Was I going to continue wishing he was someone he clearly couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be, or was I capable of accepting him for all who he was, and wasn’t? Were his limitations and the hurt and anger they caused me going to restrict who I wish to be, and the ways I want to show up in the world? 

I worked hard to see beyond my pain over what I felt was lacking in my life with him, and to look for the larger lessons that being my father’s daughter yielded for me. I worked not on forgiving each hurt, but on becoming a forgiving, merciful person. If justice means granting someone what they deserve, then mercy means granting someone more than they deserve because of the simple fact of their humanity, and all the more so if they’re someone you love, or at least have tried to love. This isn’t easy work; it takes time and practice. I’m far from having mastered it. But my father’s decline, and his death, taught me much more than I realized I needed to learn. 

By the time our family gathered around my dad on the last evening of his life, holding him as we released him -- one of life’s most tender paradoxical moments -- I had come to understand some valuable lessons about what it might mean to live a forgiving life. I had opened myself to the impact our relationship would continue to have on me in my ongoing evolution as a daughter, a sibling, a spouse, a mother, a friend, and a rabbi.

Some of these insights were shaped by my Jewish beliefs and values, and some by the realities of human nature as they become manifest in love and loss. I will share seven of them as seven is the number of completion in Jewish tradition, a number that represents a complete cycle of creation. It seems a fitting number to share now on Yom Kippur as we lean into the gift of life renewed. 

  1. Every person is an image of the divine and deserves to be treated with compassion. We may have to earn each other’s respect, but compassion and mercy come with being human.

  2. A human being is more than the sum of their deeds. Our choices and our actions may be misguided and hurtful. But we are more than the worst things we’ve done. In our world today we often debate what it means to separate the act from the actor. While outrage and justice may be called for at times, we must be careful not to lose our own humanity in the process by failing to recognize someone else’s.

  3. It is imperative that we take care of our physical and mental health. Not only for ourselves but for everyone around us. Ensuring that we are as fit as possible  -- in body, mind, and soul -- is part of preparing ourselves to handle the inevitable complexities of love, family and friendship. Working out, eating well, sleeping enough, spending time outside, having an annual checkup, and having someone to talk to about life -- either professionally or personally --  are all ways that we can try to stay in shape physically, emotionally and psychologically to handle the challenges life and relationships bring us.

  4. Family, children and parenthood are of supreme importance and form inviolable bonds. No matter what changes life brings, as it inevitably does, we each have core commitments we carry with us into all that we do and all whom we become. What are our core commitments, our non-negotiables, that will stay a part of us throughout our many transformations? What are the boundaries within which we can grow responsibly and evolve in relation to ourselves and the people in our lives? Having those answers clearly ingrained in our minds and hearts makes the journeys we undertake in life much safer and more trusting for ourselves and for everyone we encounter along the way.

  5. In addition to love, blessings and virtues, we each inherit wounds and burdens from our parents as they did from theirs and often we carry them into our own relationships. Some we’re aware of; others we aren’t. How often do we stop and wonder about someone who’s causing us pain: what hurts are they carrying? Are they even conscious of these? How might they be suffering? For the sake of those we love and those who dare to love us, we need to be mindful of and careful with the wounds we carry so as not to inflict them upon others.

  6. Doubts and questions are as crucial to faith as belief and commitment. A human mind is a miraculous source not just of intelligence and discipline but of courageous and creative dissent that can be dedicated to causes and values of great integrity. The people we love will invariably make choices that are different from the ones we hope they’ll make, even from the ones we need them to make. But beyond the rejection, resentment or fear those choices might conjure up for us, it’s possible there’s something redemptive happening for them. Part of being a forgiving person means learning to relinquish some of the control over others that makes us feel safe. Part of being a forgiving person also means learning to live with uncertainty -- uncertainty about what makes someone else happy or fulfilled, uncertainty about the meaning someone else is seeking in life. Living a forgiving life means being able to bear witness to someone else’s efforts to find their purpose, even when their efforts fail stunningly, even when their efforts defy comprehension, without making it all about you.

  7. On this day of Yom Kippur, I’m especially mindful of the lesson that being forgiving doesn’t mean accepting every hurtful thing that transpires between you and another person. It doesn’t mean being alright with everything someone does or says to you. It doesn’t even necessarily mean being open to reconciliation. It does mean acknowledging another person's limitations and responding with mercy. It does mean having the courage to show compassion to another instead of anger. Not only for them, but for us; to fulfill our own desires for healing and freedom of which we are each worthy -- freedom from pain, freedom from loss, freedom from shame, freedom from rage. And also for the many we don’t know and can’t yet imagine who one day may be shown that much more decency and respect by the one to whom we are a forgiving presence. The circles of love broadened by our being merciful, by our living a forgiving life, are beyond measure.

While my father may not have realized all he was teaching me, my grandfather, my father’s father, Rabbi Mendel Lewittes, z”l, was explicit in what he wanted me to understand about life as expressed by our precious Jewish heritage. Of the many invaluable lessons of his I cherish, this one is particularly important to me: 

Nisuin is the Hebrew term for marriage, a relationship our tradition conceives of as bearing ultimate sanctity, a framework it borrows to describe the divine-human connection as well. My grandfather taught me that it’s no accident that this word for marriage, nisuin, shares the same Hebrew root with another word that means to forgive, as in noseh avon vapesha/ to carry or forgive iniquity and transgression, a phrase we repeat numerous times over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A loving, sacred relationship, he explained -- as I have tried to share with you today -- needs to contain an ongoing dynamic of forgiveness so as to be able to navigate the entanglements that arise when we weave our lives together with another. This is a precious lesson not only about marriage, but about every kind of bond we share with other people. People are complicated. Relationships are hard. Living a forgiving life is how we metabolize the inevitable pain we cause each other so we can get back to savoring the good we also bring each other.

So the next time you’re out to dinner with friends, instead of asking them “How did you two meet?” try asking, “How do you make your relationship work?” That’s the essence of what we really need to be learning from each other. That’s the teshuvah we’re called to not just today, but each and every day; our return to the endlessly renewing source of Love, the endlessly hopeful source of Life.