Can You Forgive, and also Forget?

The story is told about two monks who were driving a horse pulled cart to the market. Along their way they see a young woman who is unable to cross a deep, muddy patch because it was impassable by foot. The monk driving the cart stops and goes over to pick up and carry the woman across the mud so she can continue on her way. He then returns to his brother on the cart to continue his own journey, but his partner isn’t speaking to him. A couple of hours later, he asks “Why are you so silent? Is it because I picked up that woman a while back?” “Yes,” replied his companion…you know that is against our rules.” “I am sad for you, my friend,” said the first monk. “I put that woman down two hours ago but I see you are still carrying her.”

As we approach Yom Kippur, we are each called on by our tradition to consider what baggage we carry with us through life. What resentments, hurt feelings and moments that we got angry at someone are we unwilling or unable to put down? And what effect does it have on us when we continue to carry around that kind of emotional baggage? We would be better off, live each day with a cleaner, healthier state of mind, as if we had lost a noticeable amount of weight, were we able to jettison such feelings of bitterness?

No doubt, it’s a tall order to let go of such experiences and feelings that weigh us down and cause us to feel resentment, annoyance and even anger at others for things done to us, said to us or spoken about us. Our ability to do that is surely connected to the severity of what was done to us and the nature of the offending person’s relationship to us. But letting go of old resentments, and forgetting them, should be our goal. We should aspire toward true forgiveness, which entails releasing the claim we have on people for what they have done to us, not only because it seems like the right thing to do to let someone out of the prison of being resented, but because it is what is the most emotionally healthy thing we can do for ourselves. We may, perhaps subconsciously, want to embrace the role of the injured party, but we would do better feeling clean and unfettered by such feelings.

Each Yom Kippur, we pray these words during the Al Chet, the Long Confessional: “V’al Kulam Eloha Selichot, Slach Lanu, M’chal Lanu, Kaper Lanu… For all these sins, God of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” These terms may seem like synonyms, but they actually mean different things. M’chila (as in M’chal Lanu) means to pardon, which can be understood as accepting someone’s apology for what they did but not overlooking their transgression. S’chila (as in S’chal Lanu) means to forgive, which can be understood as not only accepting someone’s apology but also overlooking what they did, not remembering it, and not feeling emotionally weighed down by it every time we encounter that person. Kaper Lanu (as in Yom Kippur) asks God for “atonement,” which could also be translated as “reconciliation.” To achieve “at-one-ment” is to be reconciled with another person, or with God, to return to the state of being that existed prior to a transgression being committed that hurt the relationship.

On Yom Kippur, we pray to God not only to be pardoned, but also to be forgiven and to be reconciled with our Creator. And we pray for the capacity not only to pardon those who have hurt us but for the emotional ability to forgive them and to overlook what they have done to us, and to be reconciled with those we love and care about. We will feel better, lighter and cleaner for doing so.