To Forgive Is Human

How divine is forgiveness? asks the poet, Marge Piercy:

It’s a nice concept
but what’s under the sculptured draperies?
We forgive when we don’t really care…

We forgive those who betrayed us
years later because memory has rotted
through like something left out in the weather…

We forgive those whom their own machinations
have sufficiently tangled…

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts…

We forgive mostly not from strength
but through imperfections…

We forgive because we too have done the same to others…
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

(click here for the entire Piercy poem)

To err is human, said Alexander Pope. In truth, says Marge Piercy, to forgive is human, as well. In their reflections concerning the Day of Atonement, ancient sages of the Mishnah recognized that forgiveness, both asking and giving, is the human act on which the renewed world depends year after year.

For all transgressions between a person and God—the day of Yom Kippur brings atonement. However, for all transgressions between one person and another—Yom Kippur does not bring atonement.

Between people, there is no atonement without forgiveness.  Beneath any formula or ritual of atonement, forgiveness requires that one person stand face to face with another. It’s a nice concept, but between the idea of forgiveness and the act stretches human nature. Perhaps through anger, fatigue, indifference, love, pettiness, pity, or piety—each person who considers forgiveness carries and is carried by motives most human. A Talmudic storyteller agrees:

Rabbi Abba was once offended by Rabbi Jeremiah. Rabbi Jeremiah went to Rabbi Abba’s house to apologize, but he could not bring himself to knock on the door. He sat down on the threshold. Just then the maid threw some dirty water out of the window and some of it splashed onto Rabbi Jeremiah’s head. Rabbi Jeremiah yelled:  I came to apologize and they’ve made a trash dump out of me!? Angrily, he shouted:  Just remember! He raises the poor out of the dust, the wretched from the trash dump (Psalm 113:7). Rabbi Abba heard and came out. When he saw the splattered Rabbi Jeremiah, he said begrudgingly:  Now I suppose I have to apologize to you since Solomon has said:  Go, grovel and badger your neighbor ‘til he releases you (Proverbs 6:3).

(click here for the Mishnah and Talmud passages)

This is not an account of forgiveness asked and granted. The storyteller offers no clue of the underlying offense; neither does he describe any resolution. When the curtain descends, two sages are standing face to face, each one leaning heavily on his motivation and his own biblical verse.

This is a story of the lurching movement towards a conversation that might lead to forgiveness—of some sort.

To forgive is human. If it were divine, it would be easy.

This entry was posted in Days of Awe, Mishnah, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to To Forgive Is Human

  1. Susan Breitzer says:

    Rabbi Irwin Kula once wrote that “there is no such thing as an ‘act’ of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, a way of being in the world.”

    Referencing Piercy, one might conclude that forgiveness happens when it takes less effort to forgive than to not do so–and when the effort to forgive appears the more worth it.

    Shana Tova

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