Do I Have to Forgive? (And How Would I Even Start?)

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/05/2014

Each year around the time of the Jewish High Holy Days, I take the opportunity to talk a bit about forgiveness, why it is important to all of us, and how to go about getting more of it into your life.  I do this in part because we have Unitarian Universalists among us who are also Jewish and who celebrate the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and may be wondering how much those holidays dovetail with our Unitarian Universalist beliefs and practices.  I also do it because we all struggle with issues of forgiveness from time to time, and Yom Kippur can serve as a marker in the year for us all to do important work that we need to do. 


But I also do it because it’s my job to bring useful religious ideas and themes to you.  It is fascinating to me that the Jewish High Holy Days have to do with beginning a new year, and Judaism teaches that in order for your new year to be as profitable and promising as it can be, the main thing you need to do is reconcile yourself with others and with the Source of Life by asking for and receiving forgiveness. 


What a contrast to, say, Christian high holy days, which center around the birth and death of one particular man.  The Jewish High Holy Days center around you and your relationship with other human beings and your community, as well as your relationship with ultimate reality.  And the tool they give you to do that work of reconciliation and connection is the process of forgiveness. I think that if forgiveness is the main focus of an entire religion’s holiest days, then forgiveness must be very important indeed.


The Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who was a founder of the contemporary Jewish renewal movement, apparently used to tell a story about a place called Libush that once upon a time had a glorious Sabbath each week, a Sabbath like those they might have in paradise: beautiful, joyous, peaceful beyond description. 


Wouldn’t that be lovely to look forward to each week, a day of utter peace and joy?  Wouldn’t that transform every other day, with that to look forward to?


The legend of these Sabbaths were so glorious that a traveler went all the way back to Libush to try to find someone who could tell him what made them so wonderful.  He finally found an old, old woman who remembered the days of the amazing Sabbaths and the old rabbi who was the religious leader of that day. 


The traveler asked the old woman, “So what was the secret of the Sabbath day that made it like the Messiah’s time?  What exactly did the rabbi do that made it so sweet?”


“Oh, I was just a girl then,” the old woman said. “I remember that in the kitchen before Shabbat, there was a lot of commotion.  Important guests were arriving from far and wide.  Everything had to be just so.  We were all under a great deal of pressure.  In the tumult, we would bump into one another, step on each other’s toes.  Sometimes we would even yell at one another.”


“Yes,” said the traveler, “but what made the Sabbath so special?”


“I only remember that we would get very angry with one another.  Oh yes, and every week we would always forget.”


“Forget what?”


“The rabbi would walk in, and in the most kindly voice he would ask us if we remembered.  But from one week to the next we always forgot.”


“Forgot what?”


“We always forgot to forgive one another. And as soon as we remembered to forgive one another, it was Sabbath.  Just like that.” [1]


A time of utter peace and joy can come from simple forgiveness of one another?  If that’s true, then the process of forgiveness surely does warrant our attention as religious people, as people who want to be our best possible selves in the best possible world.


But the work of forgiveness is not for the faint of heart. Sure, it’s one thing to forgive the person who snapped at you while you were making the Sabbath meal.  That’s kind of light lifting, the kind of forgiving that each of us can do if we just remember to practice it, like the old rabbi taught.


But those of us living real, messy, complicated lives outside the confines of a nice story have encountered real, messy, complicated and deep hurts, hurts that might cause us to approach the notion of forgiveness with some trepidation if not outright reluctance, if not outright refusal.  It is to these sorts of situations, the ones where we have been hurt very badly, that I want to speak today.


There’s a rabbi on the website who takes on the following question:  How can you forgive someone that really hurt you, especially if it is someone close, and the trust between you has been shattered? 


This is the sort of very tricky, very real situation that Yom Kippur invites us to contemplate.  Because oftentimes we long for that paradise that comes from forgiving, but we just can’t see the way to it given what has really happened to wound us.


I’m close to someone who had a complicated upbringing. My friend is the youngest member of a large white ethnic family, and grew up immersed in a particular culture of a particular time.  My friend’s mother was a product of this time, in so many ways.  She had as many children as nature provided, according to the norms of her church, which meant that not only did she spend most of her life in pregnancy or early motherhood, but also a significant portion of it recovering from miscarriages and at least one stillbirth or infant death.  The family story is not clear on which it was.


Her culture told her that her best role was that of wife and mother and homemaker, even though cooking for eight on a tight budget was not at all in her skill set.  And her culture told her that some problems shouldn’t be spoken of, so when she developed signs of eating disorders and religious mania and obsessive compulsive disorder and cancer, these things were largely ignored.  Which is how many families go along, ignoring the obvious, except in this case, my friend, this woman’s youngest child, didn’t always get enough to eat early on, and was largely raised by a sister, and generally had the experience throughout his childhood of being neglected by adults within a large crowd of people.  His mother’s illnesses were treated as personality quirks, and these personality quirks were very much in charge of his family’s life.  Which has left him with very complicated feelings towards his mother, who is, by the way, now dead.


My friend says, “I just feel like if I spend any more time thinking about her then she’s getting even more of my energy and effort, and I just want to forget about it and move on.  It’s not like I can talk to her about it now anyway.”  But his anger and his grief have got a hold of him that won’t let go.  If he were Jewish, and every year he was faced with the specter of being told to forgive, would he not be asking himself or some rabbi the question of the hour?  How can you forgive someone that really hurt you, especially if it is someone close, and the trust between you has been shattered? For what sort of trust is worse to shatter than that of a young person relying on a mother for food?


The rabbi who took the question on the website is named Michoel Gourarie, and he answers this conundrum this way.  I’m going to read his whole answer, which goes on a little bit.  He writes:

“Forgiveness is not a single action that you begin and complete in a short time. Forgiveness is a multi-layered process and a long journey where we slowly progress and move towards the goal.


…[T]here are three levels of forgiveness:


  1. Level one: We don't wish the person any harm and we even pray for their wellbeing. At this basic level of forgiveness we might still be upset, feel hurt or even angry. Yet we find it within ourselves not to hope for the person's downfall and not feel the need for revenge.


    2) Level two: We stop being angry. At this second stage we might not be ready to relate to the person as we did before, but we are able to move on and let go to the point where we no longer carry feelings of anger and resentment on any level.


    3) Level three: Restoring the relationship. At this final stage the forgiveness is complete. Not only have we forgiven the individual but we have totally understood and reaccepted him or her. We are now ready to be as close to the offending person as before.


    The Talmud explains that even if someone has hurt us terribly, it is expected of us to find the strength to forgive them at least on the first level. Absence of any forgiveness whatsoever is a sign of cruelty...


    A more difficult form of forgiveness is the second stage, where we cease to feel hurt or anger. If we have been hurt or betrayed we might need time and hard work to rid ourselves of negative feelings. It could be a long process of healing and soul searching, until the feelings of resentment actually disappear from our heart and soul.


    The ideal form of forgiveness is the third level where we restore the relationship. However, it must be pointed out that this is not always possible. Some relationships are so toxic that the responsible thing is to walk away from them.


    But we don't need to take an "all or nothing" approach. If restoring the relationship is impossible it is not always necessary to terminate all contact or become antagonistic. We can still achieve a more basic level of forgiveness by wishing them well. We can still cease being angry and give them basic respect. We can still greet them when we see them and give them the dignity that every human being deserves.


    Every small improvement in our relationship is significant, has a profound effect and generates happiness. Take the first step now.”[2]


    Unitarian Universalism would agree with Rabbi Gourarie: Every small improvement in our relationships are significant, have a profound effect and generate happiness.  And I think we UUs, like the Jews, could learn to work towards at least that baseline standard of the first level of forgiveness, where we don’t wish harm on the other person and we don’t seek revenge.  I think that’s an achievable goal even in the worst of situations. 


    Working towards not wishing another person ill is pretty close to an idea with which UUs are already familiar:  Our first principle, that every single person has inherent worth and dignity.  Every person has inherent worth.  That’s true for everyone in this room, and for annoying people, and for people with different political views than yours, and it’s true for mass murderers, and it’s even true for your mother.  UUs believe that every person has inherent worth, and getting to this Jewish first stage of forgiveness is really just the same thing as believing that someone has inherent worth even if they never show it to you.


    The other two stages of forgiveness, they are harder, for sure.  Just because you want to be free of anger, like my friend does with regard to his mother, that doesn’t mean that you know how to go about being free of anger.  Just because you want to have a relationship restored doesn’t mean you’re suddenly free of feelings of mistrust or resentment.  If we take my friend’s case, it doesn’t seem to work to just pretend the affront didn’t happen and “move past it.” But what does make a difference, when we’re trying to move ahead with our forgiveness plan?


    Here’s another story that might help.

    Mussa and Nagib[3]

    Once, two friends named Mussa and Nagib made a journey through the mountains of Persia on camel back.


    They came after a time to a place where a stream flowed by a sandy bank and trees gave shade.


    There they had a discussion, which turned into an argument. Nagib grew angry, and for the first time ever, he slapped Mussa across the face.


    Mussa was stunned. He felt angry. He wanted to slap Nagib back. But then he thought, "I cannot be too mad at my friend because I could have done the same thing. We are alike, and I care about him, and I don't want to fight with him anymore." So he walked over to the trees instead and picked up a stick. With the stick he wrote in the sand, "Today my best friend slapped me."


    Then he and his friend stood in silence and watched as the desert wind blew the words in the sand away.


    By the time the writing had disappeared Nagib had said that he was sorry. The friends got back on their camels and rode to their destination in a distant city.


    I’m going to pause the story here for a minute and talk about what happened, because I fear that the first things to which we tend to pay attention aren’t the most useful ones in this case.


    The first thing that we might pay attention to is what Mussa thought, the part about how, well, I’m just like Nagib and I could have done the same thing, I can’t be too mad, et cetera et cetera. 


    You might hear that and think, well, Mussa is just a nice person, or else he wasn’t that upset by what happened, but what has happened to me is far worse and I’m REALLY mad about it.  That’s a reasonable response, so I’m going to suggest that the only important part of the story about what Mussa thought is this line:  “I care about him, and I don’t want to fight with him anymore.”  If you are at that stage, where you care and you don’t want to fight any more, then you are in the exact same place as Mussa, and you might benefit from doing what he did.


    What Mussa did, right, was to write down what happened, right in front of his aggressor, in plain language, for everyone to see.  “Today my best friend slapped me.” He wrote it out for all the world to see, and his best friend didn’t refute it or try to cover it or silence it.  Mussa wrote it out and he and his best friend stood and looked at it. 


    How useful would it be for you to be able to state what happened to you, plain and simple, in a way that everyone acknowledged?  In all the disagreements we tend to have over “what really happened”, and in all our tendencies to try to move on and forget about it, how often do we get the chance to just plainly say what happened to us?  Sure, maybe it’s only our version of what happened, but what other version matters when we are hurt?


    Mussa got to write out his story, and was lucky enough that there was no refuting what he had said.  But Mussa had also chosen to write his story in sand, and, after a while, the desert winds came and blew it away.  And by then Nagib had said he was sorry, and the friends got back on the camels to continue their journey.


    Here, we might find we’re paying attention to the fact that the sand is only temporary and it’s supposed to be blown away.  Our first response to that might be resentment, wondering how much it matters if we tell the truth on something that isn’t meant to be permanent. 


    Or, we might think that it’s our job to do the blowing away, or that the blowing happens immediately, so quickly that no-one even sees our truth.  The story, though, says that Mussa wrote the statement in the sand, and he and his friend who hurt him stood there in silence watching it until the wind blew it away.  Not talking it out.  Not helping it blow.  Just watching, together, in silence, to see if a change would come.


    Next month in November we’ll be talking about grace as a worship theme, but you’re getting a preview today, because sometimes when we’re talking about forgiveness, we’re talking about opening the door to grace.  For the purposes of this sermon, I’m going to use Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones’[4] definition of grace:


    [Grace is] that “unexpected gift,” tangible or intangible, that comes from a flesh-and-blood friend or stranger. [Grace is] that mysterious in-breaking of wonder and thankfulness that frees our spirits from despair. [Grace is] those times when something goes unexpectedly right just when everything seems to be going wrong.


    Sometimes, when you want to forgive, when you just don’t want to fight anymore, but you don’t know what else to do, your only job is to open the door to grace, the unexpected gift that makes a way out of no way.  Sometimes, when it comes to forgiveness, the first step is not to hide what happened or move on from what happened, but to write what happened to you right out there for everyone to see – but you write it in sand, trusting that maybe there is some way to blow it away. 


    While you do your job of writing it out, you realize that you’re not the wind that makes it all better.  You don’t even know if that wind is gonna come, and you sure don’t know where it comes from or how to summon it.  You’re just the author who chooses to write in sand instead of rock.  So you write, and then you stand back and you watch it and wait for grace to come.


    I thought about somehow bringing sand in here for us to write on but that seemed like a logistical problem I didn’t want to manage, so I’m going to ask us now to use our imaginations.  If you are someone who has been done a significant wrong and would like to forgive at a new level, whether it be the first level of avoiding revenge or the second level of letting go of anger or the third level of a complete restoration of relationship, close your eyes now and imagine a big sandy area.  You’ve got a sharp stick resting right in your hand. 


    Pick up your stick and write out what has happened to you in clear language, or as clear as you can muster today.  If you’re not much of a language person, draw out a picture in the sand instead.  By the way, since this is your imagination, your handwriting is perfect and your artistry is inspired.  And if this exercise doesn’t exactly apply to your life right now, then please send your love and courage to those in the room for whom this is all too real.


    After we write or draw our message, let us take a few moments and just look at what we have written or drawn.



    You are being held in the spirit of love and community.  Your hurt is real.  We will wait with you for something to change.  We believe that change is possible.  We invite it to come.


    Let’s finish the story of Mussa and Nagib.



    On their trip back through the mountain pass they stopped again at the same river.


    This time the two friends decided to take a swim. Since their first visit, the rains had made the current stronger and river much deeper. Mussa, the friend who had been slapped, stepped into the water first. Right away, he slipped on a rock, was dragged under by the current, and began to drown. Nagib jumped in without a second thought and pulled his friend to safety.


    The two friends again sat in silence for some time until Mussa had regained his breath. Then he rose and went to his saddlebags. There he found a carving knife. This time he went to a rock near the river.


    Into the rock he carved these words, "Today my best friend saved me."


    Again the two friends sat in silence. Finally Nagib spoke, "My friend, after I hurt you, you wrote the words in sand. Now after I saved you, you wrote the words in stone.  Why?"


    Mussa replied, "When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away. This way our hearts are free from bitterness, and we can renew our friendships. But, when someone does something kind for us, we must engrave it in stone and in our hearts so that we will never forget."


    Yom Kippur is a day much like any other day as a Unitarian Universalist.  We are trying our best to forge connections that are deep and long lasting, even in situations that challenge and separate us.  To do that, forgiveness is essential, even when it’s hard.  Let us remember, today and all through the year, to write our grievances in sand and the kindnesses we receive in stone, so that the cords that link us to others have the best of chances to grow and to strengthen.


    So may it be.  Amen.

[1] This story comes from Kushner, Lawrence, Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996, p.91-92.

[3] Adapted from a story by Malba Tahan (pen name for Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza, 1895-1975), a mathematician from Brazil who also wrote The Man Who Counted (Editoria Record, 2001), which was first published in Brazil in 1949.


[4] Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones at First Unitarian Church of San José, Minister’s Musings blog,