Dear Rabbi Simon,
I think it would be very meaningful if you could devote an entire show (at least) on the issue of forgiveness. This has been an issue I have been struggling with for several years………how to forgive those who engage in behavior which is very hurtful and for which they are not willing to take responsibility. I am the youngest sister of two children (my older sibling a female as well). Our relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that the only reason I continue to have any communication with her is because of my niece and nephew whom I absolutely adore. If you knew me personally, you would find me to be a very loving, family oriented, compassionate, and sensitive individual. I have engaged in many years of psychotherapy and people regard me as a very good communicator who can resolve any issue as long as the person in question is willing to communicate. Unfortunately, my sister does not fall into those ranks. She is a very good person who is well-defended, intimidating, critical, and judgmental. She could have made a wonderful prosecuting attorney! I am certainly not perfect myself, although my capacity for introspection and self-reflection is great. I also have no problems looking at my behavior and taking responsibility for my actions. This is one of my greatest strengths.
My sister has said many, many things over the years that have been incredibly hurtful and very unloving. I have made numerous attempts at resolving our issues ranging from very basic (let’s talk and work out some of these issues) to very sophisticated (learning neurolinguistics) in order to get her attention and resolve the problems. Nothing has worked. It is very obvious through these experiences, that she is not a willing participant. For some time now, I have been making all attempts at accepting the relationship for what it is and my sister for who she is…….I can’t get past the pain and angst that I have suffered. I am a very forgiving person by nature, and do love my sister VERY much. Forgiveness is of paramount importance in this situation. This is an issue I see most people struggling with in their own lives…..I think you would do this nation a great service if you were to explore this on your radio show (or even write a book!). If you have any words of wisdom that might shed light on this issue, I would greatly appreciate your input!
Thank you & God bless!
Dear [name redacted],
I appreciate your patience waiting for my belated reply.
I will dedicate a show (if not more) to the issue of forgiveness that you raise. Perhaps the title will be: How to forgive when you cannot forget; how to forget when you cannot forgive.
I am moved and do empathize with your pain and the hurt caused by your deteriorating relationship with your sister, and I understand your frustration at your inability to communicate with her.
It is very difficult for me to comment specifically on this problem because of all the intricate details involved in the dynamic and pathology of your family, your upbringing and your history with your sister. There are so many factors that need to be considered, of which I have no clue without having an in depth discussion with you, and for that matter, with your sister as well.
For instance, it would be important to ask your sister how she sees the situation. Does she think that your relationship is good? Does it bother her at all? What, in her opinion, are the causes of the problems? And so on. It also would be vital to know the nature of your relationship as children. Was there competition between you two? How did your parents handle you both? Was there favoritism, or perceived favoritism in either your or your sister’s eyes? Did resentment begin to fester at an early age?
Notwithstanding the limited knowledge I have about your particular dynamic, allow me to say this. No matter how much a person has suffered at the hands of others, you have control over your life. The mere fact that G-d gives a person life means that He gives you the resources and abilities to deal with every challenge. “The cure precedes the illness” says the Talmud. You (and each one of us) does not have to be a victim. You have control over your destiny.
This is particularly true if the abused and hurt person is completely on the receiving end of the pain, in other words, it is of no fault of your own. For example, a child suffering abuse at the hands of his or her parents (Heaven protect us and our children). Because, there is no way that G-d would not give a child the powers to ultimately heal and grow. Life is G-d saying that you matter, that you have an indispensable contribution to make, and that you can and therefore must deal with every challenge presented to you.
In a random world one could argue “survival of the fittest:” you suffered, too bad on you. Some come out on top, some don’t. But when you introduce G-d into your life, this means that your life is vital and important. It is irreplaceable. You are needed and you are therefore given all the tools to fulfill your calling. No problem can impede you — but you must be willing. By no means does this “justify” or minimize the pain suffered; we have a every right to challenge G-d and implore why this happened. But once it happened, we do not have to remain a victim. I have seen men and women who were abused as children grow into the most refined and beautiful adults, exceeding by far many who had healthy childhoods.
When a person is a partner in the problem, then it is important for the person to remedy his or her side of the pain in order to grow and heal. However, in a case where one is, as I mentioned, not at fault, then they have everything available to grow through childhood and life’s “curveballs.” But it is up to you to access these resources.
The problem you have with your sister is YOUR problem, not hers. As long as you see it as her problem, you remain a victim. YOU need to take control of your life, and build the confidence necessary to function and experience healthy and positive growth. If attempting to communicate with your sister is debilitating and demoralizing, stay away from her.
Forgiveness is not for the other person (the one you forgive) as much as it is for yourself (the one doing the forgiving). It is about letting go. It is saying that I will not remain locked in the past and remain a victim of circumstances by blaming, by carrying, by continuing past patterns. Forgiveness in Hebrew is “mechilah,” which also connects to the root of the word “mochul,” meaning a circle.
Life is meant for us to create into a circle. To take all our experiences, all of the features and elements of our life and convert it into one harmonious, seamless flow, that encompasses all that we do into one holistic whole: a complete circle. Not many lines going in different directions. But one circle. When someone hurts us the circle is broken, sometimes just a hair fracture, sometimes a greater fissure. When we learn to forgive it often means not merely forgiving the person who has hurt us, but forgiving ourselves (the blame and shame we carry that ‘I was at fault’ — that’s how children think). It means forgiving G-d. It means forgiving life itself, and all its bizarre and often cruel twists and turns. It may also include forgiving the soul of your sister, even though she is unable to consciously act on it.
Obviously an important aspect of forgiveness entails forgiving the perpetrator. But that requires the perpetrator’s acknowledgement of the hurt caused, his/her willingness to ask for forgiveness, ensuring that the one who was hurt will not be hurt even more by forgiving. Forgiving can sometimes be an unhealthy way of getting back in favor of the perpetrator.
What I am discussing here is the aspect of forgiveness between you and yourself. Going away from being a victim, which sometimes takes the shape of anger and distance, running away from the person who has hurt you, and becoming free — completing your circle. This often requires much work, and it always requires a connection to G-d, the Giver of life and all the resources to face life’s challenges. Only by being connected to something that is not human and mortal can we rise above our own mortality and vulnerability to the pain others cause us, particularly those close to us.
I would suggest that you begin saying (if you do not already do so) the Modeh Ani every morning immediately upon awakening. Think about the words which acknowledge that ‘You, G-d, have returned my soul. I thank You for giving me life, for giving me a soul, that transcends all life’s ups and downs. I thank You for making me significant and for giving me the power to fulfill my unique mission in this world.’
Another suggestion, is to begin lighting Shabbos candles every Friday afternoon, right before sunset. If you do so already, utilize this sacred moment to cover your eyes and pray for the strength and insight to complete your circle.
As I said, I cannot comment on you sister and whether she has the potential for you both to have healthy communication and whether there is hope for a better relationship. This depends on many factors, some of which I stated earlier. But even in the worst scenario, my suggestions here are meant for YOU, how you should deal with it. How you can become a greater person. And who knows, that too might have a positive effect on your sister.
Obviously, there is so much more to say. But I hope this opens up some doors. And I definitely will dedicate a show to this important topic, where I will attempt to explore this further, and invite people’s comments and experiences.
Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention.
Blessings and best wishes,
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
How can words express that warmth and gratitude I feel towards you for your helpful, compassionate, and well-thought out response! Thank you for taking such time from your very busy schedule to share your knowledge and wisdom with an individual you have never even met!
I just want you to know that your suggestions will be taken very seriously and followed as you advised. You raise some very thought provoking ideas, especially with regards to the victim mentality. Funny that you should bring it up at this time, but a friend had just suggested that I put my energies in letting go of this way of being — I had not been aware that I was engaging in this self-defeating mindset. Of course, it is always easier to see these issues in other people!
Speaking as a therapist, I am truly amazed with your understanding of certain psychological dynamics and your ability to ask relevent questions. I would certainly be surprised if you did not have a formal backround in psychology, etc. You appear to be a very well-rounded Rabbi! I guess you are just going to have to burst the many misconceptions I have with regard to the Lubavitch individual.
I am now receiving your monthly newsletter and have brought every piece of literature that you offer. I was not aware that you were taping your Wednesday night classes — oh, how I wish I could be part of that program! I will email Ari for a list of those lectures, most specifically, the one on forgiveness. I would certainly love to know if you are planning a trip anywhere in Florida, so I could meet you in person. In the meantime, I wish to help in any way I can…….I will make donations to support your efforts to the extent that I am able…….please let me know if I can help in any other way. I would act as your South Florida advocate should you have any special requests.
Continued success in all your efforts to bring light to this anguished world in which we live!