Freedom to Forgive
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.—Lewis B. Smedes
While researching forgiveness, I came across the following example.
Jennifer, 65, is very angry at her ex-boyfriend. It seems he asked her best friend out on a date, just a few days after breaking up with Jennifer. He was her boyfriend in high school.
Yes, high school.
Initially, we may look at this story and scoff. Most people don’t allow past slights to remain relevant in the present day—or do we?
More often than we would like to admit, we live our life as though our past dramas are still fresh. We relive moments where people pained us, tainting the perfectly good gift of the present day. We allow anger and grudges to take up precious real estate in our minds. Real estate that we can’t afford if we want to live a long and healthy life.
Practically, these passages seem like tall orders to the average person, and we may assume that this law is meant to foster kindness towards another human. Yet, upon closer examination, we find that this is also a kindness directed towards oneself.
It is human nature to hold onto thoughts and memories that bring up strong emotion, and sometimes we try to nurse our wounds by remembering them again and again. We might even feel entitled to cling to the pain as we rehash our anger and sadness towards various people and situations we previously encountered. We long for validation, and somehow think that by holding on to past hurt we can bring ourselves solace. However, deep down, we know that bearing grudges has a negative health effect and actually does the opposite of providing us comfort.
Nourishing these thoughts is akin to returning to a prison we have already been liberated from.
Dr. Edith Edgar, an Auschwitz survivor and Psychiatrist, shares in her book, The Choice, that after liberation, almost all of the survivors from the camps walked out of the gates of Auschwitz physically free. Yet, a shocking number of people then turned around and walked right back in. Although they were physically liberated, they understandably felt they had nowhere to go.
Similarly, in the popular movie (based on a story by Stephen King), The Shawshank Redemption, many prisoners who were freed after serving a prolonged prison sentence committed crimes again in order to return to prison. They simply felt incapable of creating a productive space for themselves in society, and this led them back to jail.
This phenomenon occurs all the time, particularly in the emotional sense. Many of us impose psychological slavery upon ourselves. Despite having full power to be free from anger and painful memories, our minds sometimes drag us right back to the specific scenario, thus forcing us to live with it in our present day. Our mind may return to past hurt simply because they have nowhere positive to take us, or perhaps the pathways are so strong that it’s nearly impossible to break free.
We are physically free, and yet we shackle ourselves to the past. We hold the key to unlocking our handcuffs, we just have to know how to use it.
Of course, I am not suggesting ignoring or suppressing the pain of the past, as we will inevitably explode at a later time. Part of the healing process may include mentally revisiting negative experiences to acknowledge the source of the pain. Initially, “visiting” may be an essential part of the healing process. But over time, excessive repeated “visitation” starts to have the opposite effect.
We must utilize the power of our minds to our advantage by learning to let go.
Interestingly, our mental freedom is the only freedom we have complete control over. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote the following after experiencing the death camps of Auschwitz: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In truth, other “freedoms” in life are not really our own. We may not always have complete control of our financial freedom. And even if we are not technically enslaved or jailed, we cannot always control where we are at any given moment. We might be stuck in traffic or forced to live in a certain city because of school, marriage, or professional needs. However, one’s mind always has total freedom over where it resides.
Someone can be sitting in traffic, but mentally learning Torah. Another person can live in a town with little to no Judaism, and still find millions of opportunities for mitzvot. And similarly, one can be living in the holy city of Jerusalem, or have a lavish home in the best of zip codes, but be jailed by his own destructive thoughts.
Forgiveness helps our mind release us from our own inner prison, and is a a gift from Hashem that has the power to transcend. As Elul approaches, Hashem hands us this koach to draw upon. Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur offer the power of forgiveness and starting anew.
As Yom Kippur concludes, we often feel cleansed, ready to start fresh. We even declare that Hashem “cleanses” us in shul. We repeatedly sing the 13 attributes of Hashem and conclude with the word v’nakeh—“and G-d cleanses.” In synagogue, we stop the song there. However, the passuk continues, v’nakey lo y’nakeh. “Hashem cleanses but does not cleanse completely.”
An explanation for this inconsistency is that part of the cleansing we experience on Yom Kippur must come from ourselves. In essence, we are partners with Hashem in the teshuvah process. Since Hashem tzilcha, “Hashem is our shadow,” reflecting our own attitudes and motions in this world, the full cleanse we experience on Yom Kippur stems from elevating ourselves to forgive others. The Gemara explains that we must do something—yaasu—to mimic Hashem’s attributes in order to receive their benefit.
Forgiveness is actually not about the other person at all, but rather our internal self. Forgiveness frees. When I forgive past transgressions, I don’t have to be shackled to them anymore and my mind no longer pulls me back to the negative memory. In this way, I can truly spring forward into the new year.
Dr. Edgar returned to Auschwitz years after liberation, and writes:
I leave Auschwitz, I skip out! I pass under the words ARBEIT MACHT FREI. How cruel and mocking those words were…as I skip under the dark iron letters towards my husband, I see sparks with truth. Work has set me free… Not the work the Nazis meant—it was inner work. Of learning to survive and thrive, of learning to forgive…and when I do this work, then I am no longer hostage or the prisoner of anything. I am free.
Follow in Dr. Edgar’s steps and walk away from old anger and grudges a free person. Allow work, inner work, to set you free. May we all go into Yom Kippur forgiving others and ourselves, and may Hashem in turn forgive us as well. In this way we can enjoy a fresh start and experience the greatest freedom ever given to mankind.
Stay tuned to next week’s column for practical tips on forgiving others.
 Ibid. 19:17
 Leviticus 19:18
 Shemot, Parshas Ki Sisa, 34
 Tehillim 121:5
 Gemara Shabbos 133b, Rosh Hashana 17b
 The Choice by Dr. Eva Edgar, page 233