Tomorrow night is the start of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar. From the “opening ceremony” at Kol Nidre to the concluding Ne’ela prayer at the end of the long fast day, Yom Kippur is marked with the drama of a people united in contrition, begging God for forgiveness for their sins, and new shot at life, and a chance to start again.
Our default is to understand apology and forgiveness as two halves of a transaction:
We offer apology and (we hope) receive forgiveness in return.
Someone offers an apology to us, and we (possibly) grant forgiveness in return.
It doesn’t need to work like this. Forgiveness is not merely a response to an apology; it is something we can do even without an apology.
When another person hurts us, we may feel anger, resentment, betrayal, mistruct, or other painful emotions. Holding on to these emotions separates us from other people and from ourselves. We lose our connection to ourselves and the divine.
In this state of separation, we, in turn, become the offender. Either we retaliate against our offender, or we lash out at others in the same way.
Abused becomes abuser, perpetuating the cycle and keeping us further separated from others, and from ourselves.
As the saying goes:
Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
Anger drains our energy. It keeps us separated from ourselves. It doesn’t harm the target of our anger.
When we are caught up in this vicious negative spiral of wrong and revenge, we only hurt ourselves. We lose connection to our true values and to the meaning of life. We live a “deathless death.”
We can end this cycle by returning to our truth. Reclaiming our core values. Realigning with our vision and mission. Reconnecting with our identity.
We do this by letting go of the emotions that get in our way.
This release is what forgiveness is all about.
Forgiveness breaks the cycle of wrong and revenge by releasing the anger we feel at those who have harmed us.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes,
Forgiveness is an action that is not a reaction.
Forgiveness does not need the prompt of an apology. We have the capacity to interrupt the cycle at any time. It begins internally, with a choice to release the stories and their attendant emotions — anger, resentment, betrayal, pain, blame, shame, guilt — that separate us from others.
In releasing those toxic emotions, we reclaim our power. We reconnect with our identity. We return to our truth.
This is what Yom Kippur is all about. This is Yom Teshuva — the day of return.