Last year, a friend asked me to set part of the Bedtime Shema – an extended version of the traditional shema prayer that we say at bedtime – to music. When I looked it over carefully, the opening line jumped out at me:
I hereby forgive anyone who has angered me, provoked me, or sinned against me.
(Hareini mochel lichol mi shehichis vihiknit oti oh shechatah kinegdi)
What moved me so much about this prayer is that we are offering forgiveness to people we perceive as having hurt us throughout the day and they are not even present. We are in our beds, on our own, offering forgiveness and the people who hurt us are not even there.
What this indicated to me was that forgiveness has less to do with the one who harmed us than it has to do with ourselves. We forgive others not to let them off the hook but to allow ourselves to continue to live our lives without the burden of carrying around hatred and anger.
I had been mulling over these words and their implication when, driving home that same week, I heard the following story on NPR:
Jennifer Thompson was raped in 1984 and she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, and the perpetrator, who had died in prison serving time for another crime, was identified.
When Jennifer came to terms with the fact that Ronald Cotton was innocent, she said, “I knew how to be a victim of sexual violence… and now I became an offender… Fear set in and it just took hold of me, and you know, terrified that at any minute he was going to spring up behind any dark corner and want to set the record straight and, you know, hurt me or take something away from me.”
Even though some of her friends tried to convince her otherwise, she knew she had to meet Ronald.
It took two years until they met face to face. Jennifer said that, “We met in a small church not far from where I’d been raped 13 years before. And as soon as he walked into the room, and I just started to cry, he just immediately gave me forgiveness. And it was the first time, truly, in 13 years that I could physically feel myself starting to heal. And oddly enough, it should be the one person that I had learned to hate so much during that time that would teach me about grace and mercy, and it was the most amazing – outside of the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life.”
I drove around listening to Jennifer’s story, crying. (You can read and/or listen to the full story here.)
Years before, I had come across The Forgiveness Project. On this website are stories of people who have been victims of heinous crimes, whose family members have been murdered, who have lived through wars – and they have all chosen to forgive their perpetrators. In the words of one woman, “They wouldn’t know if I felt hate toward them and the only person it was hurting was me.” These stories moved me deeply and made me begin to think very seriously about forgiveness. If people who had lived through the unspeakable had forgiven, it gave me hope that I could find it in my heart to forgive others for ways in which I perceived that they had hurt me.
So, here we are in the aseret yimei teshuvah – the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – the day in which we ask God to forgive our own shortcomings and allow us to live in spite of them. This forgiveness work is real, and it’s deep and it’s very serious. And you can’t fake it.
I know I’m still carrying some unecessary stuff around. I feel pretty clear with people I see regularly because we can deal with things as they come up. We mess up, we apologize and talk about it, and we move on. But, often I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a long time and I realize that I’m still carrying around some sort of old grudge against them. “Let go,” I gently tell myself. “It’s OK. You don’t have to carry this around any longer.”
So here’s my blessing for us all: May we each break through this week, lighten our load, let go of some old or new grudge, choose acceptance over anger, love over fear.