The Heart of the Matter
One of the most famous sayings of Socrates is: "The unexamined life is not worth living”. For Socrates, growth and wisdom are only possible through a process of ongoing self-reflection. Real, meaningful amend-making and the process of seeking forgiveness (and granting it) are the natural by-products of examining one’s own behavior and interactions with others. However, these opportunities to repair relationships and clean the emotional underbrush we’ve accumulated are often missed when we are too focused on self to honestly consider the impact of our words and deeds on the people around us. At times, we all walk the world a little bit like Mr. Magoo, profoundly myopic and oblivious to the emotional wreckage we leave in our wake as a result. Deep resentment, dishonesty, and fear keep us, and those we have harmed, chained to the past.
Each year in preparation for and during the High Holy Days, Judaism provides a very specific timeframe during which we are tasked with reviewing the year past: Where have we harmed others with our words and actions, or by our silence and inaction? Where have we failed to keep our word? Where have we been dishonest in our personal AND business lives? Where have we fallen short?
We are then required to go to those we have harmed, do our best to make amends and right our wrongs, and to sincerely seek forgiveness. And Judaism requires us to forgive any person who sincerely seeks it. This seeking of and granting forgiveness is not easy work, but I think our tradition recognizes that it is essential for our spiritual growth, the well-being of both parties and peace within the community at large. It keeps life and the world in balance.
While Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, in Judaism there is no blanket atonement for wrongdoing and sin. The Mishnah teaches: "For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” We have to right those wrongs ourselves. There are no short cuts or easier, softer ways.
The Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days, began this past week, calling us once again to do this hard work of repentance and forgiveness. It is customary during the month of Elul to sound the shofar every weekday following morning services. Rambam taught that the sound of the shofar was to awaken us from our spiritual slumber and complacency, and is a call to thoughtful, prayerful repentance.
The process of amend making begins with an unflinching, unvarnished evaluation of self, setting aside what others may have done to harm us and focusing only on the wrongs we have committed. This is OUR spiritual work, undiminished and undiluted by justifications or rationalizations focused on the actions of others. Regardless of the choices others may make, we are each responsible for our own conduct. Only by having clarity of our own wrongdoing can we then effectively and honestly make amends to others.
The word amend means to change. Making an honest, meaningful amend to others is not a quick and thoughtless “sorry” muttered in passing. It is not the standard non-apology apology ( “If you were offended by what I said, I’m sorry” or “If I said anything to offend, I’m sorry”); or the unthinking blanket public apology often posted on social media ( “If I did anything to offend any of you this past year, I’m sorry”). All of these examples lack any sort of honest reflection, comprehension or accountability for one’s actions. Making an amend to someone means going to them in person if possible, acknowledging the specific harm done, expressing a willingness to take whatever action is necessary to repair the damage, and asking forgiveness. Saying I’m sorry is just not enough, especially if the same behavior continues. Making amends is about changing and about a commitment to do and be better.
There is a certain amount of emotional maturity required for the kind of self-reflection and amend making that often results in the repair of damage inflicted on others. It requires both humility and a healthy sense of self and unflinching honesty. The same is required of the person whose forgiveness is sought. Perhaps even more so.
It is not always easy to forgive, especially when the wounds are deep or where abuse has occurred. The act of forgiving, however, frees one from the pain of the past and allows wounds to heal. It is about moving out from under the sense of victimization that keeps one trapped in an unending loop of powerlessness over one’s own life and choices and future. Forgiveness is the ultimate act of self-empowerment.
At times, the offender may not be asking for forgiveness. They may be oblivious to or unconcerned about their wrongdoing. Forgive anyway. It’s not for them. It’s for you. Forgiveness does not excuse the actions of the other person. It is simply an act of self-love and self-preservation to let go of the bondage of resentment and fear that shut us off from our own sense of self. It means no longer being defined by wrongs done to us. It cleans out our inner world of the negative, and makes room for love, spirit and joy.
So much of what ails us individually and communally is a deep inability to acknowledge the pain of others, rectify the harms done, and then, ultimately, to forgive. It really is the heart of the matter after all.