Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Rebuilding Our Lives

A cynic once said, ‘a broygus is for life, not just for Simchas.’ It’s sad but so true - many of us are hopeless at re-forging damaged relationships. So often long after the original cause of the upset has ceased to be important and even after the hurt of the conflict has passed, we are still unable to bury the hatchet and repair the damage. I have come across examples in which neither family can actually remember why he or she is not talking to the other - it has just been like that for years. But the saddest moment of all comes if the parent, brother or friend is no longer there - we suddenly realise the stupidity and destructiveness of conflict, but can do nothing to repair the wrong. I have sat with mourners who, apart from their grief, are guilt-stricken over the failed relationship that they can no longer revive, the hurtful words that cannot be unsaid, the sheer futility of wasted opportunities and lost time that can never be recovered.

One of the great themes of the Days of Awe is forgiveness. The notion that God can forgive Man for his wrongdoing and enable us to start again with a clean slate, is fundamental to Jewish thought. Indeed, the Talmudic rabbis tell us ‘repentance presaged the world’ - which means that the opportunity to reset our bond with God as well as our relationships with each other, is a basic notion of human existence. It is something which God promises us, as an expression of His kindness, and one of which we must take advantage. It is particularly evident at this time of the year - for while, provided that we are sincere, God will forgive us for our wrongdoing whenever we approach Him, the period from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur is especially suitable for re-establishing our connection with Him. God promises us that if we turn to Him during this time, He will make Himself accessible.

If this is true in the sphere of our relationship with God, then it is surely true in the context of our interpersonal relationships. An important part of our task as humans is to value the spark of the Divine within ourselves and in others. Now while the Torah describes this spark as the ‘image of God’ - as God is not physical, we can not look like Him in any real sense. If so, existing in the ‘image of God’ means that we are capable, at least to some extent, of behaving like Him! We all have the ability to fill our lives with meaning by emulating God. We know that God is merciful, kind, supportive and so must we be. In our context, we see that God is forgiving - He sets aside the past and is prepared to give our relationship with Him another chance. And if God can do it, so can we! This puts the whole issue of forgiveness in a different light. It should not be a terrible struggle for us to overcome our pride and apologise and thus set our family ‘broygus’ to rest. We see it as a challenge, because we feel that we are fighting our own egos, forcing ourselves to act against our better nature. The real truth is that God has great confidence in all of us, as he has enabled us to emulate Him. As such, we can forgive and forget just as He does and this, far from being an expression of weakness, is in fact a realisation of a truly great human characteristic. We see that the ability to forgive and start again makes us true to ourselves and the goals we set for ourselves as Jews - to come closer to God by emulating Him and in so doing, bring about a better and happier world.

It is now clear that while we should make every effort to repair our failed relationships whenever we can, the Yom Tov season is the best time in the year for so doing. If God is particularly forgiving at this time, we should also use it as an opportunity to forgive.

Of course, we must genuinely want to change and improve - paying lip-service to the idea with no real commitment is of no value at all. In fact, the rabbis have a rather graphic description of this phenomenon - they liken it to someone who wishes to dip into a mikveh to purify himself from contact with something unclean. But while he dips, he still grasps the unclean object in his hand! However much he dips, it will clearly have no effect on him at all. We must also approach the Yom Tov season with true resolve for improvement - just going through the motions or mouthing the prayers with no feeling will obviously have no effect on us. Likewise, when we apologise to others or indicate our forgiveness of them, we need to be sincere and to try to overcome one of the great hurdles in human relationships - the grudge. Forgiving means giving the other party another chance in a friendly context, not just letting them off lightly whilst still disliking them.

The Torah provides us with a remarkably simple tool to help us effect real improvement in our relationships. I can report from personal experience how effective it is and highly recommend it. It is to force ourselves to assist or help the person with whom we have fallen out. Even when we still dislike them, even if we are confident that they are in the wrong, the Torah sources advise us to grit our teeth and give of ourselves to them. And when we do, a remarkable thing starts to happen - we don’t dislike them any more! A bond starts to form, which will eventually enable us to re-establish the lost relationship. The Hebrew language explains this phenomenon - the word for love is ahavah whereas the word for give is hav. These two words have the same root meaning, because we only love when we give. This is because when we give of ourselves, we leave a little behind, and since we all love ourselves, the bond begins to form. We move quickly from giving to loving.

This year, let us focus differently on our responsibilities to improve our broken relationships. Let us recognise that we can actually emulate God Himself by expressing our forgiveness to others. It is not a display of weakness, but in fact, our greatest strength. And through our true resolve to better our lives and communities, God will surely bless us with a ‘shanah tovah u’m’tukoh’- a sweet and good year, full of meaning and happiness.

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