Catharsis, joy and healing

Yom Kippur at its best can be a healing, cathartic experience. But the process that leads to this result is not easy.
Myths about Yom Kippur: It is a day of sadness. It is a day of self-mortification. It is a day when all our sins are forgiven. Instead, Yom Kippur is a day that can culminate in joy. As we read in Mishna Ta’anit 4:8, “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” (The 15th of Av is the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.)
Yom Kippur can be a time of reconciliation on multiple levels: with family and friends, with God and with ourselves. Happiness stems from granting forgiveness, receiving forgiveness and achieving a state of “at-one-ment.” But this requires us to ask many questions: How do we apologize? How do we forgive? Are we required to forgive someone who does not seek forgiveness? How do we forgive someone who has died? How do we receive forgiveness from someone who has died?
I don’t have enough column space to answer all of these questions, but I can offer ideas.
The Jewish jury is still out concerning whether we should forgive someone who has wronged us but never shown remorse, has not provided restitution and has not apologized.
Rambam clearly teaches that in the absence of any efforts by the wrongdoer to seek forgiveness, we have no obligation to forgive. Why? Because this violates the core value that we are to be held accountable for our words and actions.
But what if the harm that was inflicted upon us has become toxic? What if we have internalized the pain and developed a grudge that only hurts ourselves? We can become fixated upon this injustice and fall into the trap of a hurt that keeps hurting.
To protect ourselves, Judaism teaches that we must find a way to heal. This does not entail completely forgiving those who harmed us but never sought our forgiveness. But it does challenge us to transcend the pain they inflicted upon us.
This is no easy task.
I can think of one person in particular who many years ago inflicted a great amount of pain upon my wife and me . It has taken me years to get to a better place, to find a way to compartmentalize the feelings of betrayal, manipulation and deception. As a result, I have taken back control from the person who hurt us.
Another way to facilitate forgiveness? Be empathetic. We can strive to get a better awareness of why that person hurt us. I am not saying that our empathy should extend so far as to completely absolve those who hurt others. For example, I would never say that a spouse should use empathy to completely forgive their partner for domestic violence. 
Granting forgiveness can sometimes feel like walking a high wire without a net. On the one hand, we need to forgive to heal ourselves, but on the other hand, we can feel that forgiving others prevents them from being accountable for the pain they inflicted or from changing their ways to prevent hurting others in the future.
What does Yom Kippur teach about how to seek forgiveness? One tradition instructs that every evening of the year we can ask ourselves, “Have I hurt or injured anyone today, either by acts of commission or omission?” Then we must plan to make amends. We need not wait until the High Holidays. We can begin by apologizing to those we have wronged, but then follow these words with action. This may require us to perform an act of restitution, such as returning what we stole or paying money for any damages. 
The highest act we can perform is teshuvah. We can define this as “returning to the vision of our highest self.” When we undergo teshuvah after hurting someone else, we express a fundamental transformation of our value system and our behavior. It is never too late to perform teshuvah. We can do this to heal a wrong we inflicted upon someone who is still alive or someone who has passed away.
This is the beauty of Yom Kippur: It is never too late to change.
I want to wish everyone a Shana tova u’m’tukah, a good and sweet new year. May this year be filled with healing and transcendence for ourselves, our families and our diverse communities.


Add Comment