“Behold, I pardon and forgive…” These are the opening words of the nightly prayer known as the קריאת שמע על המטה/bedtime shema. It continues, “I pardon and forgive all those who angered or mocked me, who did wrong against me, whether against my self, my property, my honor or anything else of mine, whether they did so against their will or willfully, whether by accident or intentionally, whether in this life or in another life…”
This statement is surprisingly thorough, even including possible reincarnations! What is the reasoning for such a total statement of forgiveness to be recited each and every night? The answer lies in the discovery of forgiveness and its twin character trait gratitude as essential ingredients in a flourishing life. Douglas Turner, a positive psychology thinker writes, “Positive Psychologists have studied the effects of forgiving. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet found that people who visualized forgiving those who had offended them experienced less anger, sadness, and overall negative emotions compared to when they relived the hurt and held a grudge. Martin E. P. Seligman found that ‘physical health, particularly in cardiovascular terms, is likely better in those who forgive than those who do not.’” Positive Psychology News.
With all of the known benefits of forgiveness, it is still a challenge for most us at one point or another, usually because of the sentiment that those who we would forgive do not deserve it. Interestingly enough forgiveness has been defined by some psychologists precisely as showing undeserved compassion. In this vein, the Talmud has a beautiful teaching based on the Biblical book of Micah. The verse of Micah states “God removes sins and lets go of wrongdoing” (Micah 7:18), the Talmudic rabbis understood this to mean “Whose sins does God remove? Those who let go of their ‘right’ to hold a grudge for wrongdoing”(Rosh HaShanah 17a). What we find is that in proportion to the “rights” of resentment we give up, the more joy, meaning and connection we experience and are capable of bringing to others.
Think about it/מחשבה– Each night this week, recite the statement of forgiveness recorded at the start of this blog entry or in your personal siddur (it can be found in nearly all editions of the siddur).
Try it/מעשה– Write a letter of forgiveness to someone for something you’ve been having trouble letting go. You do not need to deliver the letter, but let the writing of it serve as closure of any feelings of resentment and the opening of new feelings of compassion.