Rifts for a Reason: When We’re Too Hurt to Forgive

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05 Jul 2018

A friend told me this week that she plans to sever her relationship with her sister, a relationship which she feels has become toxic. While I understand why she is taking this course of action and don’t know that she’s wrong, the conversation left a pang. Maybe because I’ve seen, both in personal relationships and in many communities, the danger of division.

How many communities have been rocked by a breakaway minyan that has split the community in two? How many families include the two brothers that don’t speak? How often does it happen that two women, who used to be close friends, are standing in a crowded room, trying to avoid eye contact because of the rift that ended their friendship? I imagine anyone who is reading this piece has been affected in some way, or even hurt by any of the scenarios described above (or one similar), as has the person writing this article (me).

As we now find ourselves in the midst of the Three Weeks, and recall the tragic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and how sinat chinam was the cause of the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (Temple), it is a time to evaluate our personal relationships. It is a time to ask ourselves if the rifts in our lives are an example of the sinat chinam that exists today, for which the Yerushalmi indicates as the reason for why the Beit HaMikdash has not yet been rebuilt.

But here’s the question: What about when there are good reasons for a rift, or even for a grudge?

I recently took a Holocaust survivor to speak at a Christian private school. After he shared his story, which included imprisonment at Auschwitz and several other camps, a high school student raised his hand to ask a question. “Have you found it in your heart to forgive and to show love towards the Nazis”, he asked, in such a way that he was sure he was leading to an inspiring answer.

The survivor looked at him like he was crazy; “No”, he shouted. “They sent babies and young children to the gas chambers. I will never forget and never forgive!”

It is the approach of many A.M.E. churches in the South to “turn the other cheek” and find love and forgiveness, as most famously seen when family members of the victims of the Charleston church shooting, “forgave” Dylann Roof in court. And while this attitude is perhaps inspiring, we also know it’s not always reasonable or even the right approach. Certainly, no one would hold this holocaust survivor “accountable” for “not forgiving”.

What about the agunah whose husband is holding onto her get (Jewish divorce) until she surrenders custody of their children. Does she have to forgive during these Three Weeks? Is that sinat chinam? The wife whose husband walked out on her and their kids, leaving her responsible to provide for them?

And the less extreme but more common cases: the couple with the bitter divorce where horrible words were thrown from one to the other. The child who feels their parents raised them with angry words, always belittling them. The close friend who backstabbed, the frum boss who fired with no notice or explanation, the man who shouts at another in shul, publicly embarrassing him. Yes, while some of the issues that emerged to cause the division in our personal lives or communities are undoubtedly trivial, others are substantial.

We are real people in life. While I like to hope that at heart, most of us are good, there are acts done and words said that are sometimes hard to justify. Not every painful act perpetrated comes with remorse and some are repeated offenses. If we choose to walk away from toxic relationships, thereby creating division, is the Beit HaMikdash really still broken because of us? Does Hashem really want us to be shmattas, sticking around to be hurt again and again?

Where is that line between “grudges” that are justifiable to hold onto (like the Holocaust survivor), and ones we should let go of? And for the ones we should let go of, how do we when the hurt and perhaps anger, is still ebbing inside?  

I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do think is the Three Weeks is one of the times set aside on the Jewish calendar, to ponder them.

I once saw someone I was hurt by, pray with great kavana (intent). And seeing this awakened a realization; the person wasn’t acting this way to be a bad person, or even to hurt me. He was acting in his own self interest and believed himself to be justified. (And who knows, maybe he was right?) For some reason, that ignited a new perspective within me. I was still hurt and frustrated by the action, I still wouldn’t trust him, but I didn’t take it as personally. And that took away some of the sting.

Every summer, we stay at my parent’s house for a few weeks, from the time we drop off my older kids for sleep away camp to Visiting Day. I am very close with my parents (and talk to my mother almost every day) but it’s not easy to live in a home of empty nesters when your kids are… kids. And that’s not taking into account that my mother is world’s most domestic person, super clean and organized (she can tell you exactly in which spot in the cupboard her cumin is) and I’m… not. So every year, by the end of the first week, my mother gets annoyed at the mess and we feel bad about staying so long. And so this year, we considered visiting for a much shorter time. My mother was really surprised and even a little hurt, “Why,” she asked, “I love having you!”

I explained to her that sometimes we feel like it’s difficult for them to have us stay for so long and I don’t love being reprimanded for getting the wrong kind of dirt in her Dustbuster (true story). What she answered made a big impact: “Sometimes I get frustrated by the mess. I’m not used to it. But learn not to take it so personally. I’m not upset at you. I love having you here”. And so this year, each time she has gotten frustrated by the mess, I’m able to see it in that lens. She’s not upset at me; she’s frustrated by the situation. And for the first summer in years, we’ve really enjoyed ourselves.

Using these stories as the paradigm for all of the hurt I’ve experienced from relationships, I am trying to evaluate each case in that lens.

The way we take something is often not the way it’s intended, although with our emotional reactions to the hurt, it’s hard to see that. (This also doesn’t exonerate the person who is doing the hurtful action. Just because a person doesn’t see that they are being inconsiderate, doesn’t make it OK.)

Perhaps in some cases, it is the smart approach to pull away and to not stick around to be hurt further, in other cases, perhaps we should learn not to be so sensitive and to give a relationship another try. But in all cases, to try to remove the personal element and to realize that just because someone acts in their own self interest, and is perhaps not being so considerate to us, doesn’t always mean the intention was such.

I don’t think Hashem expects us all to be best friends on Tisha b’Av, or even to forgive hurtful acts that have been repeated, after we explain why they’re hurtful and no remorse or understanding is expressed. But perhaps what Hashem does want from us is to try to come to a place to understand the other side and their possible motivations, to come a place of objectivity and at the very least, to be cordial, even when we’ve been hurt.

And that’s my goal these Three Weeks.

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at arieladavis@gmail.com

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.