Forgiving and Forgetting
For transgressing the laws between man and G-d, such as keeping kosher, we can repent to Him directly. But for hurting our fellow man, Hashem will not forgive us...
When I took my first tentative steps towards Hashem and slowly began to evaluate my past actions, He decided to see if I was serious. He didn’t test my budding modesty with a 90% off sale on GAP jeans, He didn’t test my commitment to keeping Shabbat with a fridge malfunction, He didn’t even send me any juicy gossip.
None of that. Hashem decided to send, all the way from Australia to Israel, two girls that I had taunted mercilessly at school, 30 years ago.
When I was around 8 years old, I was popular, and that gave me the ‘confidence’ to be a subtle bully. I was as fast with my tongue as I was cruel with my wit. I certainly wasn’t winning any beauty contests, so I was out to prove my mettle with my mind instead, and my favorite pastime was teasing the newer, far-prettier students. I would make snide and sometimes downright nasty comments about just about anything. I made others laugh at their expense, and although I didn’t know it then, it was just about the worst thing I could possibly do to another human being. It’s no small wonder, then, that the moment I decided to connect to Hashem and to delve into my past, Hashem wasted no time on their behalf.
I had been doing hitbodedut for only a few weeks when I received the phone call from my mother. One of my past victims, let’s call her Lisa, was coming to live in Israel for a year and wanted to get in touch with me, since I lived in the town where she would be staying with her family. Why would she want to get in touch with me, you ask? Well, despite my horrid teasing, we actually ended up very good friends throughout high school and beyond. When my mother told me she was coming, I knew, straight away, without a sliver of a doubt, that Hashem wanted me to ask her for forgiveness, something I had never done.
She arrived, we got in touch, and we set up a date to meet at the park with our children. We talked, we compared lives. I told myself it wasn’t exactly the place for a confession, and that we would meet again over coffee and I would talk to her then.
It never happened. I got caught up in my new spiritual high and all the changes and challenges it entailed. When I finally remembered Lisa, I was told that she had actually left Israel earlier than planned, and had relocated to San Francisco. I was stunned. I had failed. Hashem had sent me a present and I had turned it down. But more than that, I saw that I hadn’t really changed much. And that hurt more than anything.
Meanwhile, we moved to Jerusalem. I got another phone call from my mother. Another former school mate, let’s call her Dina, was coming to live in Jerusalem for a year and wanted to get in touch with me. I couldn’t believe it. I simply could not believe my ears. Another chance! Yes, Dina, too, was one of my childhood targets. As it happened, she wasn’t the one who sought my contact. Her mother had bumped into my mother, and the next thing you know….
When Dina arrived in Jerusalem, I got in touch, and she didn’t seem so thrilled to hear from me. I felt the sting of long-buried shame, and understood that this wasn’t going to be easy. I had been asking for Hashem’s forgiveness, and now it was time to ask for hers. I racked my brain trying to think of a way I could broach the matter without a scene but drew a complete blank. Quite frankly, I was scared. Circumstance kept on getting in the way of our meeting, so I let the months slip by between nondescript phone conversations. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and beginning of the Ten days of Repentance, crept closer.
Our sages teach us that for transgressing the laws between man and G-d, such as keeping kosher, we can repent to Him directly. But for hurting our fellow man, Hashem will not forgive us. Only asking for, and receiving forgiveness from the person we have hurt will clear our transgression. Torah Law directs us that it is incumbent upon us to try three times to ask for forgiveness, in the event that the person we have hurt is not ready to forgive the first time we ask. After we have pleaded honestly for their forgiveness three times, if they still reject our good intentions, we have at least done what the Torah requires of us and now the responsibility for the stalemate is in their hands. Hashem can now forgive us if He chooses.
Meanwhile, Rosh Hashana loomed over my head, now only a few days away.
It was about this time that I remembered Lisa in San Francisco. Now I had a double-jeopardy on my hands. I decided to try Lisa first, and opened a Facebook account especially to find her. Bingo. I wasted no time and sent her an emotional message that spoke regretfully of the past, my reasons for bringing it up now, and asked for her forgiveness. Her reply was a vague thank you for my sentiments and a comment about going to pick up the children. Eh? No violins in the background? No cyber-tears flowing? I reasoned that since we had been friends, after all, maybe she didn’t realize that I was serious. I gave it another try, this time explaining how I understood it might be a little too much to take in at once, and if she could just think about it a little, that I would appreciate her thoughts about forgiveness, whatever they may be, before Rosh Hashana. She replied that it WAS a lot for her to take in, and that she’d get back to me. There. The truth was out. After thirty years, THIRTY YEARS, it still hurt. I was stunned. When I still didn’t hear from her, I realized I had one more chance left, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
After my painful encounter with Lisa, not yet resolved, my yetzer hara , evil inclination, was having a field day stopping me from calling Dina in Jerusalem. In the meantime, I packed up my husband and son off to Uman, my other children to the in-laws, and I was looking forward to spending Rosh Hashana alone with G-d, since we had plenty to talk about. I was consumed with mounting guilt and emotions over this mess I’d gotten myself into, and desperately sought closure and peace of mind.
It was the night before Rosh Hashana Eve. Last chance. I sent a final heartfelt plea to Lisa, asking her once more for her formal forgiveness and letting her know how truly deeply sorry I was that I had caused her such pain. Once again, she thanked me sincerely for my thoughts and wished me a Happy New Year. There was no mention of forgiveness. I wrote back my own holiday greeting and realized sadly that although I had done my part, I was not forgiven, nor forgotten.
With no time to waste dwelling on the past, I finally called Dina. She was clearly curious when I asked her for a few minutes to speak. I then began to talk about my past cruelty, how deeply sorry I was, and how now, after 30 years, I was finally asking for her forgiveness.
Dina? I asked, are you still there?
She was crying. ‘I don’t even remember any of the things you said’, she whispered. ‘I had forgotten about it’. She continued, sobbing freely, ‘I had almost blocked it out, those years …. they…. were the most terrible of my life. I have spent a long time trying to forget them, and I really don’t remember anything that you said. I just know that I really, really hated school.’
I was deeply shocked. We both cried, and spoke for a long time. She had suffered tremendous loss of self-esteem that continued throughout high school and beyond. She had been in therapy for several years to get over her lack of confidence. We talked for a while and had a beautiful, meaningful conversation. After a while, I asked her. ‘Dina, please, I called you to ask you for your forgiveness before Rosh Hashana. You can say yes, and you can say no, too. It would mean a lot to me either way, to have an answer from you.’
‘Yes’, she said, ‘I do forgive you’. And we both cried; this time, after thirty years, together.
Imagine. My thoughtless childhood cruelty led to adulthood scarring of the deepest nature. No wonder the Torah compares embarrassing another person to murder. And if an immature mind can cause such devastating effect, how much more careful must we be as mature, aware adults.
This Tisha B’av, my 6 year old son had a tantrum. He threw all the pillows off the couches. After he had calmed down, I silently watched as he heaved and lugged everything back into place. It took him about 10 minutes. It had taken only a furious minute to tear it all off.
This Tisha B’av, I saw how a minute of hateful behaviour took a much longer time to fix. Just as our petty hatred as a people led us into 2000 years of continuing exile, my thoughtless taunting of my classmates led to decades of unnecessary trauma and resentment. But we are all given the chance, and the Divine tools, to show a willingness to repair the damage. The result is up to Hashem alone.
I don’t know if I was able to repair any of the damage that I did, but I believe that I did what Hashem wanted me to do, and I pray that He forgave me, too.