A Rabbi, a YouTube Video, and the Emotional Punch Called Forgiveness

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Breaking bread (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime

Most people, it’s probably fair to say, strive to be the best at what they do, or at least fantasize about what it would feel like if they were. Perhaps an unlikely category of profession, in recent years American rabbis have joined baseball players, gourmet chefs, and Hollywood actors to become the object of star rankings. Last year’s “most influential” rabbi, as designated by the annual Newsweek/Daily Beast roundup, was Los Angeles-based Rabbi Sharon Brous who heads the spiritual community of Ikar.

Though I live far from the physical center of Ikar (the word is Hebrew for “essence”), it’s not hard for me to see why its spiritual leader has landed on the international Jewish radar. The latest offering from Rabbi Sharon Brous’s team consists of a short video gradually making its way around the blogosphere. In time for the Jewish Holidays, where reckoning and repentance feature as central themes, the “I forgive you” video raises important questions about whether forgiveness has become the forgotten component of spiritual repentance and repair. And at less than a minute and a half, the video packs a surprising emotional punch.

There’s a lot of preoccupation in modern culture with saying sorry. During the High Holiday period, capped by Yom Kippur, we are supposed to atone for our sins. Ideally, we would appeal not only to God for absolution, but we would also approach those whom we’ve harmed directly to ask for their forgiveness. Though we may still not be very good at it, apologizing is an ingrained aspect of our culture and society.

But what about the flip-side of this conversation? What about the actual act of forgiveness? Specifically, must forgiving be contingent on receiving an apology?

It’s a question that’s long nagged at me, and it’s the question I posed to Rabbi Brous after seeing the video.

Her response, posted via a public Facebook exchange, and shared here with permission, was this: “...once an offender has made teshuvah [repentance], gone through the process of reflection/ return, the person who has been hurt must forgive - it would be cruel not to. The real question is when an offender doesn't make amends and you're stuck holding your hurt. Can you then forgive for the sake of your own healing? Thus,‘you don't have to - but what if you did?’”

Rabbi Brous’ response gave me pause. So much of Jewish law and tradition revolves around gleaning what is prescribed, what is permitted and what is proscribed. May a minyan (prayer quorum) contain women? If we place a nearly invisible string around the perimeter of our town, are we permitted to carry items on Shabbat? Must we cover our elbows? How many hours must we wait after ingesting milk before we can take a bite of meat?

What is most inspiring to me - and apparently to the many congregants who have been attracted to Ikar’s style of spiritual community and Rabbi Sharon Brous’s spiritual leadership - is the courage to ask what often goes unasked. In short, the “what if we did?” questions.

What if we forgave without first hearing I’m sorry? What if the person who harmed you is unable to see the hurt he or she caused? What if that person is too proud or emotionally limited to utter those golden words? What would happen if we did forgive? Might the world look any different?

As Israelis and Palestinians launch their next round of talks, the memory of hurt and bloodshed will no doubt be in the air. Debates over whether Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state are intimately tied up with the Palestinian view of Israel having been born on the backs of the Palestinian people. Israel’s good-will gesture of prisoner release is steeped in the pain of those who grieve Israeli victims who were murdered at the hands of those Palestinian prisoners. Decades of house demolitions and checkpoints, and as many years of hijackings and hostage-taking mean the time is rife for apology.

The chance that we will hear apologies being uttered around the table, though, are slim to none. But perhaps we might hear the silent whispers of forgiveness.

What would happen between Israelis and Palestinians and supporters of a peaceful end to the conflict if we listened for that attempt at forgiveness? What would happen to the lives of all of us if we tried to forgive whatever transgressions - real or perceived - are holding us back from emotional and psychological freedom? These are the kinds of questions - the “what if we did” questions - that I will be asking myself this month, as the High Holidays - with all their potent reminders that there is much to repair within ourselves and within the world - approach.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov 

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