Rabbi Judy Greenfeld on Forgiveness During the High Holy Days

October 2, 2019
Photo courtesy of Rabbi Judy Greenfeld

Before the High Holy Days, we reach out to anyone we have wronged during the year and ask for their forgiveness. And then on Yom Kippur, we turn to HaShem to seek forgiveness for any transgressions we have made. 

Forgiveness isn’t always easy. Thankfully, our community leaders are here to help us navigate this challenging task. 

Rabbi Judy Greenfeld, the founder and spiritual leader of Encino’s Nachshon Minyan, known as “the relationship rabbi,” spoke with the Journal about what it takes to ask for and accept forgiveness, as well as the positive benefits that come from doing so.

Jewish Journal: What does forgiveness entail?

Rabbi Judy Greenfeld: The word forgiveness is a tough one. I tell people it’s like looking in your closet at things that aggravate you and people who hurt you. It comes from dropping into where your anger is coming from. There’s a dramatic loop in an argument: I’m right, and this is something that’s wrong. Where are the places you feel like you were right and there was an injustice? Then, you have to look at your part in it. Any relationship is two people. Even if there’s a situation where you feel you have been victimized, you have to forgive yourself for not knowing better. It’s threefold: Forgiveness of yourself, forgiveness of the other and on Yom Kippur, forgiveness between you and God.  

Be willing to get a different perspective. Take responsibility for your part in it. Do you have to be right? Can you see the other person’s point of view? Can you see a way to fix it? Forgiveness is not about letting somebody off the hook or making somebody pay. Forgiveness is for your peace of mind so you can unhook yourself from your pride or ego. You can let it go. It’s like a tug of war. It’s draining. When you let it go, you’re giving it to God, who is the ultimate judge. God has the energy to take it off your plate. When you get to a place of forgiveness, it’s absolute freedom. 

JJ: How do you ask for forgiveness? 

JG: That is really terrifying. Keep a mantra in your head of, “I’m not doing this for their response.” Put up a shield for what their response is going to be. Otherwise, you can’t stay in yourself to get what you need. The person may not even remember what you’re talking about. That’s when you’ll realize, “Wow, this is really for me.” This is to build your self-esteem, self-love and self-respect and not worry about the response. You do have to spend time in regret. You can’t hurt somebody’s feelings and say, “I’m sorry” right away. It can’t be empty. 

Forgiveness is not about letting somebody off the hook or making somebody pay. Forgiveness is for your peace of mind so you can unhook yourself from your pride or ego.

JJ: How do you ask God for forgiveness?

JG: I write letters to God and ask him to take a painful scenario from me. I wake up in the morning, put pen to paper, light a candle because it puts me in a solid place, and thank God for another day. I will write down what I might be feeling angry at or upset about and throw it away. I give it to God. I ask God to guide my steps and not beat myself up when I make mistakes. 

JJ: Was there a time when you had trouble forgiving someone but had to look past it?

JG: I’ve been a victim of gun violence. When I was 16, my father was murdered in downtown Cleveland. These three young boys held him up and that was it. It was very traumatic. I brought Holocaust survivor Eva Kor here. She was one of [Joseph] Mengele’s scientific experiments and she made this documentary about forgiving him. She explained that she gave away [her anger] because it was ruining her life. She gave it to God.

I asked my mother if I could forgive these boys for killing my father and ruining my life. I would like to practice forgiveness so I don’t feel like I have to hunt them down. I pray they are brought to justice. If I worried about where they were, then I wouldn’t be able to live. I turn my weakness into strength. I open my hands, let go of the rope, and don’t have to play tug of war anymore.   

JJ: In these divisive times, how does forgiveness come into play?

JG: There is so much that polarizes us. Our times are in flux. Turn your focus on yourself. Before Rosh Hashanah, you’re in a monthlong period of working on changing your perspective and reframing how you see things. You have no control over the world, so turn your focus on forgiving yourself. Turn to Judaism to strengthen your values and what you believe is crucial. Rosh Hashanah is about the idea that we went from chaos to order, and God brings us order. The best thing we can do in these times is to anchor ourselves in what we believe to be good and true. 

While the political environment is always changing, Judaism is an anchor that hasn’t changed for 5,000 years. I want to encourage people to focus on cleaning up the things in themselves. You’ll be surprised at how much changes around you.

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