What Yom Kippur Can Teach Us About Forgiveness

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is when many Jewish people repent for sins and forgive the misdeeds of others. Those of us who observe contemplate any harm we’ve caused and open ourselves to those who might’ve slighted us. In fact, tradition dictates that someone might ask for forgiveness as many as three times. If the injured party doesn’t forgive, they are forgiven anyway—and the non-forgiver has to atone for withholding absolution.

Yom Kippur reminds me that there are misconceptions about what it means to forgive in a world that often reaches for punishment instead of grace. Popular culture implies forgiveness is a sign of weakness, or that doing it means you have to resume a fraught relationship that caused you pain. But, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to remember that forgiveness is multifaceted—and you can pardon those who hurt you while protecting yourself.

Experts In This Article
  • Joseph Krakoff, Joseph Krakoff, senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network
  • Judith R. Burdick, MA, LLP, Judith R. Burdick, MA, LLP, is a Michigan psychotherapist and creator of Transforming Loss, an award-winning documentary film

According to the American Psychological Association, forgiveness isn’t the same as justice. It’s not about righting a wrong as much as it is about applying “empathy, compassion, and understanding” toward the person who hurt you. Doing this is hard because it doesn’t necessarily bring a resolution, but what it does is likely more impactful.

Being hurt, angry, or disappointed isn’t just a feeling—it’s a physiological state that puts strain on the body, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Research suggests that making an effort to let go of anger and resentment can lower your risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and stress. Embracing forgiveness might also improve sleep, a sense of calm, and cholesterol levels, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. In short: forgiveness helps you more than the other party.

Knowing all of this doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy. I had to reckon with what it means to forgive when my long-term mentor lied to me and refused to apologize. He was someone who’d become a moral compass of sorts, and without him to guide me, I was upset and desperate for wisdom. So I interviewed religious readers and people who’ve dealt with wrongs never righted to get some perspective on the need for apologies and atonement. This journey led me to write The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology, but those lessons echoed what I’d learned from observing Yom Kippur: Forgiveness is active and ongoing. No one goes through life without requiring it.

“True forgiveness isn’t instantaneous,” says Judith R. Burdick, MA, LLP, a Michigan psychotherapist and creator of Transforming Loss, an award-winning documentary film. “ It’s something you work towards.”

Forgiveness is often a beginning—not an end

Forgiving can feel like you’re letting someone “off the hook,” but true forgiveness doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. I interviewed Gary Weinstein, a Michigan jeweler, who openly forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children. Though Weinstein publicly expressed forgiveness, he says he’s glad the driver was convicted and sentenced. He found some contentment from knowing there were consequences, and they’d likely never see each other again.

As we mentioned above, forgiveness and justice are two separate things, and forgiving someone doesn’t mean you don’t seek justice. Weinstein was able to rely on the court system and started using his experience to help others. He found meaning and purpose through letting go of resentment, and, in this way, he found a path forward from the pain.

You can heal without getting the apology you crave

At age 30, Kenan Trebinčević, a Bosnian Muslim and coauthor of the books The Bosnia List and World In Between, was holding on to rage. He was exiled from his country at 12-years old during the Bosnian genocide. Filled with a need for retribution, Trebinčević found that speaking out against atrocities felt empowering. But, while researching his first memoir, he realized that holding on to hatred might be stunting his growth. The question, however, is how does someone seek forgiveness for crimes committed against their family by people they may never actually face?

Forgiveness can come without a direct apology, says Joseph Krakoff, senior director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network. In his hospice work, Rabbi Krakoff asks dying relatives to tell their kin: “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Do you forgive me? I love you.” While not the lengthy tête-à-tête many crave, Rabbi Krakoff says the prayer helps many mourners grieve and move on.

For Trebinčević, forgiveness was something he had to work toward and, ultimately, claim.  During his book research, he made a list of Serbs who’d helped his family escape, and he reconnected with Pero, a Christian Orthodox Serb police chief who saved his family from a concentration camp. He discovered that Pero had post-traumatic stress disorder because of the war.

When Trebinčević’s book was published, he was moved by the outpouring of support, including Mirela, a woman from Sarajevo who contacted him on social media to say how much his book meant to her. They are now married with a newborn son. Without facing the people who harmed his family, he confronted his past, let go of pain, and found his future.

Sometimes we need to look inward to forgive ourselves

Forgiveness isn’t passive. It requires effort and a commitment to seeing things differently.  “Before you can really forgive, you have to understand and accept what happened to you,” Burdick says. Since “knowledge is power,” Burdick suggests therapy, meditation, finding a spiritual community, or sympathetic teacher or mentor. But sometimes, the hardest part is knowing that you’re worthy of granting yourself a little grace.

“Many people who have been hurt hold themselves hostage with blame and regrets,” Burdick says. “This Yom Kippur, along with extending kindness and compassion to others, you should also forgive yourself.”

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