This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, presents us with a challenge. The parasha is all about forgiveness. Even though Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, twice (by cheating him of his birthright and his father’s blessing) and they didn’t speak for many years, in Vayishlach, Jacob seeks forgiveness, and Esau forgives. It is the first big introduction to the powerful Jewish idea of teshuvah. When I find forgiveness hard to do, I think of the moment when Jacob and Esau kiss and hug each other in this week’s parasha. If they can do it, then maybe so can I.
The challenge for me is this: How did they do it? How do we forgive someone who has hurt us badly? What does forgiveness mean anyway?
When I think of forgiveness, I am often reminded of the secular adage, ‘Forgive and Forget.’ But that is very hard to do. Some hurts don’t go away, and we can’t forget them. The idea of forgive and forget also seems to imply that we let the person who hurt us ‘off the hook.’ In Judaism, when someone hurts us badly, we may choose to ignore it, and ‘forget.’ But teshuvah means something different. It is not about forgetting—it is about remembering, and changing.
The word teshuvah can help us understand the Jewish idea of forgiveness. Teshuvah literally means to turn, or return to our best selves. It means to let go of that which keeps us from being our best selves. For example, we are our best selves when we let go of anger and resentment. There is a wonderful Mussar text which says that ‘Anger is like acid; it destroys the container it is in before it can be poured out.’ In other words, our anger at someone can damage us because it can cause us to be less compassionate, curious and caring. Anger can make us knotted up inside, stressed, and sad.
Teshuvah is about letting go of the anger that knots us up. Teshuvah requires us to tell the person who hurt us what they did, and teshuvah asks us to give that person a chance to change and become better. And it challenges us to let go of anger that may be causing us more harm than good.
This week, take a look at the anger we may hold within us toward someone else. Can we follow the path of Jacob and Esau, and let it go? What would it feel like to do that? Can releasing the anger, even briefly, give us some precious moments of peace and freedom?
May we find the blessing of teshuvah this week.
Rabbi Marcia R. Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Brookline