I just left the synagogue having celebrated one of the high holy days of the year, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The most significant day of the Jewish year is quickly approaching - Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is said that on Rosh Hashana our fate is written and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed. We are given ten days - the days of awe - between the two holy days for deep introspection and to ask for forgiveness.
Each of us, at some time, has been insensitive, ungrateful, distracted, self-absorbed, unwelcoming, unpleasant, standoffish, belligerent, angry, or just moody. It is hard for us to always predict or appreciate the effects of our thoughts, words or actions on others. But during this period of time, we must dig deep in our souls and empathetically ask forgiveness for anything hurtful or potentially hurtful that we said or did or neglected to say or do.
So who or what should forgive us to make sure that our fate is a positive one? A reasonable first response would be God. After all, it is called days of awe; which sounds like it has to do with a divinity. It is also considered the most religious holiday in a religion which is, in many respects, God-centered. In accordance with ancient Jewish beliefs; as God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (everywhere), omnibenevolent (all loving) and omnipotent (all powerful), he/she/it would have the knowledge, desire and ability to absolve and forgive all of your sins, transgressions and wrongdoings involving anyone and everyone. It would be a one stop forgiveness shopping. Who better to go to then God?
However, the ancients had something else in mind. During this important time, it is not God that we are required to ask for forgiveness; it is our fellow man, the recipient of the action or inaction. Perhaps they had pre-knowledge of modern forgiveness research by Everett Worthington, Robert Enright, Michael McCullough, and others showing the multitude of health and wellness benefits achieved when we ask forgiveness directly from someone whom we have hurt in some way. According to Jewish beliefs, you cannot adequately be forgiven unless it is directly from the person or people with whom the misconduct involves. You can't be absolved by some higher third party. Yes, forgiveness is divine; but fortunately it is human as well. In fact, forgiveness is finding the divine in all of us. As someone who is trying to quit the Blame Game, I attempt to avoid blaming. However, I'm not always successful and still find myself blaming someone or something for my perceived troubles. Luckily, there is salvation in the process of forgiving.
So when we go around requesting others to forgive us, what is it exactly that we are asking them to do? We are not asking them to forget or condone what happened. Forgiveness is an essential part of our healing; enabling us to willingly acknowledge what we feel is unjust and harmful. It releases our anger, pain, and suffering and allows us to move beyond hurt and bitterness toward emotional healing and inner peace. Perhaps the reason that this is important during the days of awe is that the process of forgiveness is beneficial for both the forgiver and the forgiven both as individuals and in terms of their relationship.
In The Power of Forgiving, Dr. Worthington explains the forgiveness paradox - forgiveness for the purpose of others' well-being actually yields huge physical and mental health benefits for us; including greater cardiovascular health. Worthington has shown that when subjects imagined granting forgiveness in a criminal scenario, they reduced both fear and anger, and increased positive and pro-social emotions of empathy and gratitude (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2008). Dr. Michael McCullough, has found that forgiving allows people to overcome negative conflict-related effects on their relationships. Increased forgiveness toward a transgressor was associated with greater psychological well-being; more life satisfaction, positive mood, and fewer physical symptoms (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2008). Forgiveness was also linked to well-being for people who were closer and more committed to their partners. Forgiveness of an ex-spouse results in improved mood, less depression, and a greater sense of well-being. Other studies have shown that the process of forgiveness is associated with less stress, reduction in medications used, improved sleep, less fatigue, fewer physical complaints, greater altruistic behavior, and more donating to charities.
One of the grandfathers of the Forgiveness movement and the Founder of the Forgiveness Institute, Robert Enright teaches children in violent neighborhoods in Northern Ireland and in inner city Milwaukee how to forgive. People who have followed his forgiveness teachings have been able to reduce their depression, anger, and anxiety, and improve their self-esteem. Psychologically healthier adults will, in turn, pay it forward by becoming more productive citizens and forming healthier community relationships.
Obviously, forgiving is not a behavior or characteristic exclusive to Judaism and in fact, is practiced in all religions. I therefore offer that everyone, Jew and non-Jew take some time to increase their practice of forgiveness; whether this is toward a friend, coworker, spouse, sibling, neighbor, teacher, student, clergy, salesperson, or anyone else. The health and wellness benefits that you will achieve, the elevation of your mood, and the spiritual uplift that you will experience during the process of forgiveness will help you understand and appreciate why these are called the days of awe.
Copyright Neil Farber, 2010