My husband Leib had hurt my feelings.* How could I forgive him?
We were guests at a large Shabbos table with people from all over the world. Haim had been asked to tell his story. Since Haim, like us, was a frequent guest at this home, I knew his story well. On a plane from Stockholm to Moscow, sitting next to an important political figure, he had heard an earful of disconcerting anti-Semitic slurs. The conversation between them was hair-raising.
Haim started to tell his story, without mentioning that at the time he was not wearing his kippa or any other identifying signs that he was a Jew. So I, a professional story teller who knows how to build the elements of a story, interjected, "You didn't say – "
In front of everyone, my husband stopped me. "Let him tell the story."
"But he didn't say that he wasn't wearing his – "
“It’s his story,” my husband cut me off in an uncharacteristically harsh tone. “Let him tell it the way he wants.”
How could I let go of my hurt and reconnect with my husband?
I said nothing more, but I felt wounded. How could my beloved husband have humiliated me like that? How could he have made me seem wrong when I was only trying to save the story? Now all these people must think that I’m a loudmouth who’s always butting into other people’s stories. He had embarrassed me. And, as the evening progressed, he didn’t even seem to realize his misdeed or apologize.
I didn’t want distance and grievance to mar our relationship, but how could I let go of my hurt and reconnect with my husband?
Step 1: Instead of scowling at the offender, direct your gaze “upward.”
The first step in letting go of resentment is to realize that whatever happens to you ultimately comes from God, whether directly as in the case of illness or hurricane, or indirectly through a human being.
The bedrock belief of Judaism, the actual meaning of “Jewish monotheism,” is that God is the one and only operative force in the universe. “Monotheism” is more than rejecting belief in idols and pagan gods. The second of the Ten Commandments enjoins, “You should not have elohim aherim – other gods before Me.” But the Hebrew word “elohim” also means “forces” or “powers.” The Second Commandment means you should not believe in any force or power other than God. That includes: Wall Street, the IRS, bacteria, pesticides, Al-Qaeda, the meter maid, and your brother-in-law. The only operative force in the universe is God. Period.
The implication of this is that if I am suffering, God decided that I needed that amount of trial and tribulation for my spiritual rectification (which is the only reason one’s soul comes down into this world). Another human being has no more power to hurt you than he does to make it snow. All the power comes from God. All the causal lines are vertical, from God to you, not horizontal, from another person to you.
So what about free will? Don’t human beings have free choice to hurt or not hurt?
It works like this: It’s past midnight. You are walking down a dark street in a dangerous neighborhood. A man standing at the intersection is deciding whether or not to mug you. He has free choice, and he is accountable for his choices (in the world of reward and punishment, after this world). Let’s say he chooses to mug you. If God decides you should not have that trauma and financial loss, regardless of the mugger’s choice, you will not be mugged. God can send a pair of policemen to that intersection at that moment. Or you can get a call on your cellphone and (if like me) it takes you several minutes to locate your cellphone in your pocketbook, and while you are standing there fumbling in your purse, a different victim reaches the intersection. Or two loan sharks that the mugger owes money to can be walking toward him, and he hightails it in the opposite direction. The mugger chose to hurt you, but since God decided otherwise, you were not hurt.
On the other hand, let’s say the guy is standing there at the intersection as you approach, and he decides, “She looks like a nice lady. I’m not going to mug her.” (Good choice, buddy!) But if God decides you need that amount of trauma and financial loss for your spiritual rectification, late the next night when you’re driving on an isolated back road, your car’s transmission will die and your cellphone battery will be dead, and you will suffer just as much trauma and financial loss. Human beings’ free choice affects only themselves, not physical reality, which is totally controlled by God.
Recognizing that the situation came from God lowers your blood pressure more than hours of yoga.
The Talmud illustrates this truth with a metaphor: When a dog is being beaten by a man with a stick, the dog will bite the stick, not the man. Similarly, when we are hurt, we focus on the agent of our hurt—our spouse, boss, friend, parent, co-worker, or neighbor—but they are merely the “sticks” in God’s hand. Everything that happens to us comes—directly or indirectly—from God.
So the first step is to recognize that this is primarily between you and God, rather than between you and the person who hurt you.
Step 2: Ask: “What Am I Supposed to Learn from This?”
Recognizing that the situation came from God lowers your blood pressure more than hours of yoga. Only then will you have the emotional equilibrium to ask yourself The Spiritual Growth Question. In Judaism, this question is not “Why?“ but rather, “What?” Not “Why did God afflict me with this painful situation?” but rather “What am I supposed to learn from this?” Or, “What should be my ideal response?”
That Shabbat night, I said to myself, “If I’m hurt, God decided I should be hurt in this way. My husband was just the instrument God used.” Once the experience was between me and God rather than between me and my husband, I got the emotional equilibrium to ask, “Now, what am I supposed to learn from my humiliation?”
The answer immediately jumped into my head: “I am a successful author and lecturer. I constantly receive emails from people lauding me and telling me how my book or workshop changed their life. God does not want my ego to swell and strangle my soul. So God sent me this humiliating experience to humble me, to knock me down a notch. I’m supposed to learn humility from it.”
Step 3: The “Miscreant Melt”: Recast the person who hurt you
Now it’s time to focus on the person who hurt you, and see him or her as a whole person rather than just your torturer. He or she is also a soul with his or her own challenges, preoccupations, heartaches, and scars. A saying I read years ago proclaimed: “Remember, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” That does not exonerate them from their misdeed, but it replaces the caricature drawn by your hurt with a realistic portrait.
When I focused on Leib without looking through the distorted lenses of my hurt, I noticed that my husband, who is kind and sensitive 99% of the time (no jealousy, please!), was under a lot of pressure that day. Just before Shabbat, he had had an upsetting phone call. He was nervous and on edge.
I call this step, “The Miscreant Melt,” because you admit that human beings are complex, and the miscreant part of that person is only one dimension of a multi-faceted human being. The offender becomes a real person rather than just a vaudeville villain.
Step 4: Objectively evaluate the misdeed
Now you’re ready to objectively evaluate the deed that was committed.
What the offender did was wrong, but how wrong? In our hurt, we tend to inflate the malevolence of the offender’s action. To clearly regard the misdeed, you have to take the “personal” out of your “personal injury lawsuit.”
One way to reduce your righteous indignation is to ask yourself, “If this had had happened to a different person in a faraway location, how irate would I be?” For me that meant: “If Arnold in Poughkeepsie that shushed up his wife Adele at a dinner party, would I consider it a felony or a misdemeanor?”
After Shabbat dinner, when we were home, I told my husband how hurt I was and asked him why he did it.
Shushing other people up is rude and hurtful. I asked him how he could treat me like that. He reflected for a minute. His answer stunned me. “I don’t think I was taking revenge because you shushed me up in the car this afternoon.”
Suddenly I remembered: We were talking to our son on my cellphone. He told us that he just got notified that he got a “99” in his math exam. I was effusive in my praise. “You worked really hard studying for that exam, and it paid off. I’m so proud of you.” My husband, who was driving, said, “Ask him if he knows why he lost that one point.” This pressed my childhood button from when I would bring home an “A” and my father would ask why it wasn’t an “A+.” I glared at my husband and shushed him, hoping my son wouldn’t hear him on the speakerphone.
So shushing someone wasn’t really such a heinous crime after all.
The fourth step is to look at the act the person committed and to “disinflate” it in one of two ways: 1) To ask yourself, “If this had happened to someone else far away, would I consider it so terrible?” Or 2) To remember times when you committed the same or a similar misdeed.
Step 5: Forgive
Forgive the offender. Not because their offense is so small, but because you are so big.
Now that you have admitted that your pain came from God, through the person but not from the person, and you have calmed down enough to empathetically regard the person and to shrink the gravity of their action, you’re ready for the final step: You forgive the offender. Not because their offense is so small, but because you are so big. Any petty judge in any lower court can condemn a prisoner. It takes the Governor or President to pardon his crime. Recast yourself not as the victim, but as the victor over your own lower self.
So the steps are:
- Realize that your pain came from God; the offender was merely the agent.
- Ask the Spiritual Growth Question: “What am I supposed to learn from this?” Or “What would be the ideal response to this situation?”
- The Miscreant Melt: See the offender as a multi-dimensional person.
- Disinflate the wickedness of the deed either by asking, “If this had happened to a different person in a faraway location, how indignant would I be?” or by remembering when you committed a similar deed.
- Forgive the offender.
We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, building up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Letting go of resentment is like putting down a 60-pound backpack. But there’s another benefit to forgiving those who have hurt you. The best way to gain forgiveness for your own misdeeds is to forgive those who have sinned against you. Resentment is not only a weight on your back; it’s a wall between you and Divine forgiveness.
* The laws of Lashon Hara prohibit telling about someone’s wrong action. I received Rabbinic permission to tell this story because 1) my husband approved and 2) the potential benefit to the readers of my sharing my true-life experience.