To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. – Lewis B. Smedes
A professor once held a cup half-filled with water before his class and asked, “How heavy is this glass?”
Students called out various answers: “Three ounces!” “Five,” etc.
The teacher responded, “You’re all correct.”
The students wondered, “How could that be?
He continued, “How heavy something feels just depends on how long you’ve been holding it.”
The longer we hold on to painful experiences, the stronger the emotional response to the experience of that person or circumstance becomes. Author Catherine Ponder reflects, “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.”
One of my students was divorced and in the process of remarrying. After her first marriage, she rarely mentioned her ex-husband in conversation. Then, suddenly, when she became a kallah, I was hearing her ex’s name more frequently – perhaps even as much as her current fiancé’s!
I commented to this student “That guy is not powerful enough to take up this much of your headspace. You are so much stronger than that. Focus on what’s in front of you right now. Don’t allow him to destroy both your past and present!”
Unfortunately, we often live our lives as though our past wounds are still fresh. We allow anger and grudges to occupy the real estate in our minds – real estate that we can’t afford to lose if we want to live a long, healthy life.
The Torah decrees, “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” and commands that we “should not take revenge or bear grudges.”
This may seem like a lot to ask, and some may assume that this commandment is meant to foster kindness toward others. But, upon further examination, we see that this is also meant as a kindness directed towards oneself.
Rehashing painful thoughts is like returning to a prison we have already been freed from. Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, shares in her book The Choice that after liberation, almost all the prisoners from the camps stepped out of the gates of Auschwitz physically free; yet, a surprising number of them turned around and went right back in.
While they were physically free, they felt they had nowhere else to go.
It is human nature to retain thoughts and memories that trigger strong emotion, and sometimes we try to nurse our wounds by replaying them over and over. We might even feel entitled to the pain as we rehash our feelings toward various people and situations we previously encountered. Humans long for validation, and sometimes think that by holding on to such trauma we can bring ourselves solace. However, deep down, we also know that holding grudges has a negative health effect, and actually does the opposite of providing us comfort.
The mind can be our greatest asset or worst enemy. Our challenge is to use it to our advantage in order to live our best life.
Before the Holocaust, Dr. Eger was a premier ballet dancer and an Olympic-tracked gymnast. Her ballet teacher imparted something integral to her survival in Auschwitz: “All the ecstasy in your life is going to come from the inside.”
Our freedom and happiness starts from within. Whatever is going on externally is unimportant, because what we can create inside is infinitely more powerful.
Truly, our mental freedom is the only kind that we have complete control over. Victor Frankl, another Holocaust survivor, said the following after living through Auschwitz: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Forgiveness allows the mind to release us from our self-imposed prisons, and is a gift from Hashem. As Elul arrives, Hashem delivers us this ko’ach to draw upon. Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur present the power of forgiveness and starting anew.
When Yom Kippur is over, we often feel refreshed, ready to start anew. We even declare that Hashem has “cleansed” us in shul. We repeatedly declare the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and conclude with the phrase v’nakeh—“and G-d cleanses.” In synagogue, we stop there. However, the pasuk continues, v’nakey lo y’nakeh. Hashem cleanses but does not cleanse completely.
One explanation is that some of the cleansing we experience on Yom Kippur must come from within. We are partners with Hashem in the teshuvah process. Since Hashem tzilcha, Hashem is our “shadow,” the complete cleanse we experience on Yom Kippur stems from first forgiving others. The Gemara tells us that we must do something to mimic Hashem’s attributes in order to receive their benefit.
Generally speaking, forgiveness is not about someone else, but rather about oneself. Forgiveness frees.
My student, the kallah, agreed. Once she realized how much space she had given her ex-husband in her mind, she made a conscious effort to evict him from her thoughts, and it transformed her entire perspective. “Even after years of therapy spent discussing these issues, I couldn’t have imagined how this small change could make such a huge difference in my thinking.”
Ultimately, when we forgive others, we come out of the experience as winners.
This Elul, try to leave old anger and grudges behind, and live as a free person. Allow true inner work to set you free. And may we all go into Yom Kippur forgiving both others and ourselves, so that Hashem may in turn forgive us, as well. In this way we can all experience a fresh start, and embrace the greatest freedom ever gifted to humankind.