Learn to Let it Go

Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.
— Herman Hesse

Yom Kippur, the most serious day of the Jewish calendar, is nary upon us. As in the past, we will go to synagogue on Yom Kippur eve to make our final preparations for the awesome day. Printed in the prayer book is a prayer that I must admit I haven’t recited as well as I should have over the years. It is called tefillah zaka (pure prayer) and it is a lengthy, penitential prayer. At a later point in the text we arrive at a paragraph that, though positioned towards the end, is really the essence of the prayer.

“But since I know that there is hardly a righteous person who never sins between man and his neighbor, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his neighbor … behold, I extend complete forgiveness to anyone who has ever sinned against me… or injured me… and just as I forgive everyone, so may You grant me favor in every person’s eyes, so that they will grant me complete atonement.” (Due to this paragraph’s central importance and the fact that many people do not complete the entire prayer before Kol Nidrei, the saintly Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan urged people to recite it at an earlier part of the prayer so as to ensure its recitation.) 

When I say that haven’t recited this prayer properly I refer mainly to the above paragraph. After all, there have been people who have hurt me, sometimes in serious ways. They seemed very content with their behavior and most did not seek forgiveness. Even though I recognize that if we all – myself included – willingly forgave one another then we would all be able to approach God for the atonement that we desperately seek. But still, it was so hard to forgive sometimes, especially is their behavior hurt my career and/or affected my family. I suspect that most of us have struggled with this point. We simply have a hard time letting go and are prepared to hold grudges indefinitely when we feel that we were right, even to our own detriment.

It’s not as if we don’t have ample role models for how to behave under such conditions. Perhaps the greatest of them all, at least in this area, was Joseph. He undoubtedly felt deeply hurt and betrayed by the harsh treatment that he received from his older brothers, having been seized, threatened first with murder, and then sold as a slave to a group of idolatrous merchants. Second, within a very short period of time, Joseph had gone from the role of favored son, dreaming of a day when he would assume a leading role within his special clan, to that of a depressed servant, alone on foreign soil. The pain of separation was compounded by the strange, licentious and idolatrous culture that greeted him upon his arrival in Egypt.

Yet, when his brothers arrived in Egypt twenty-two after Joseph had long ascended to the throne, the viceroy did not use his power to exact revenge. Even his heavy handed treatment of them during that time was merely to bring them to a point where they could recognize the folly of their past ways and make amends. In the end, when he finally reveals his true identity, he does not give them a scolding but rather illustrates how the entire episode was the Divine Plan. “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Joseph understood that everything he had endured for the past twenty-two years, his enslavement, his rise to viceroy, was preordained as a way of ensuring that he could provide for his family at a time of great distress. He also saw this as God’s way of fulfilling an earlier promise, one made to his great-grandfather Abraham nearly two centuries earlier.

And (God) said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” (Ibid, 15:13-14)

Others who demonstrated how to react in the face of torment include Moses (Korah), King David (Saul, Absalom), and Hanna (Penina). So, if we have so many people to look towards for guidance and direction in terms of how to deal with others’ actions, why is it that so many of us struggle mightily in this area?

It is said in the name of a great rabbi, the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, that he asked why it is that children don’t bear grudges and adults do. Children may get upset at their parents, teachers, friends and others. They’ll say “Mommy, you’re the meanest parent ever!” and genuinely mean it. They will tell a friend that they have no intentions of playing with them ever again, and storm off to another part of the playground. Yet, within but a few minutes all is typically forgotten and they move on in those same relationships.

Adults, in contrast, can hold onto grudges for decades. Someone who mistreats us in business, does not extend to us the requisite respect, speaks badly about us, or commits some other unforgivable act  (including and perhaps especially family) can receive the silent treatment (or worse) for the rest of their lives. Why, asks the Tzemach Tzedek, are adults so much more reluctant to forgive?

His answer is simple yet deeply profound. Children, he says, choose being happy over being right. Adults choose being right over being happy.

My interpretation of this is as follows. Children care most about their relationships. They define themselves by their social connections and will make that a top priority. Even when they have been wronged they seek to quickly move on so that they can get back to what they enjoy most, playing and spending time with others. Their happiness – defined by the relationships that they have – remains paramount and serves as a Teflon coating around their egos.

Adults, on the other hand, are more focused on their self-identity. We measure ourselves not only by our relationships but also by our values and behaviors. What I believe and, by extension, what I do and value makes me who I am. And we develop strongly-held convictions around those beliefs. When others hurt us, whether their intention was personal or self-serving, we see that as an attack on our very essence. Such feelings are harder to let go of and can often linger indefinitely. At that point, it’s no longer about what they did but about how they make you feel, or whether they are morally or otherwise upstanding enough to deserve to be in your good graces.   

As the popular saying goes, “You can be right or you can be in a relationship.”

Of course, there are other reasons as to why we get stuck on being right. One is the fact that we like the sensation that we get when we feel that we are right (and that the other person is wrong). This is similar to we said above but focuses more on the actual feeling rather than the intellectual/moral element. We are wired to want to think of ourselves as right and justified. It simply feels good. It also feels good when we can put others down, especially if it’s because of an incident involving us. 

Another factor in why we play the “right/wrong” game so willingly is because it allows us to assume the victim role. Say, for example, that someone fired us from our job. Maybe we didn’t perform particularly well or get along with the right people. But because it’s so hard to admit that we can say things like they downsized, someone had it out for me, my boss didn’t appreciate the challenges that I faced, and the like. Being the victim allows us to shift blame away from ourselves onto someone else, which always feels better and helps us save face.

The problem staying in blame mode is that it can often leave you powerless and depressed. For example, if you confront the person (your boss, your spouse, your parent, your child) who wronged you, and they say, “No, I didn’t,” or worse, “So what if I did?”, then you’re left with all this anger and hurt with no resolution.

In addition, when you hold on to resentment, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free. And if that weren’t enough, by holding on to grudges we often cause Heaven to withhold something that we may desperately want.

A story is told of Reb Shmuel Kaufman of Detroit, who had been married several years and had not been blessed with children. During a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for a blessing, the Rebbe asked him if he had ever in his life caused any pain to a Jewish girl. After much reflection he remembered one young lady that he had dated but had ultimately decided was not for him. This woman had harbored some resentment ever since.

The Rebbe told Reb Shmuel that he would never have children until he received forgiveness from this woman. After much searching Rabbi Kaufman was able to send a message to ask her for forgiveness. However, the woman, who was still unmarried, said that she would never forgive him. When the Rebbe was told of her response he said, “Tell her in my name that she should forgive you so that you will be able to have children and that she in turn will find her soul mate.” She now forgave him. Not long afterward the Kaufmans were expecting their first child and this woman had become a bride.

On Yom Kippur, we need to be able to let go of grudges. Of course, there may be situations where you have no legal obligation to forgive. But that should not stop you from trying to look past the pain and find room in your heart to move on.

I know that it’s not easy. I have struggled with these feelings plenty myself and sometimes still do. But I also know that it can and should be done, for you more than for them. Below are some strategies that can help.

  • Accept what is, then let go – The past is called that for a reason. We can’t change it, no matter how much we want to. So there’s no point in reliving it. The sooner that we recognize that the faster we will come to a better place.
  • Recognize the Divine Element – Just because we don’t like what happened does not mean that it was not meant to be. We may not ever find out why losing that potential spouse, that job, that money or something else was in our best interest. But our belief in personal divine providence tells us that the outcome was nonetheless preordained.
  • Own your portion – While you may not have deserved the hurt you experienced, there may have been a part of the hurt that you are also partially responsible for. Ask yourself what you could have done differently and commit to that behavior moving forward.
  • Focus on the present – When you live in the here and now, you have less time to think about the past. When the past memories creep into your consciousness (as they are bound to do from time to time), acknowledge them for a moment. And then bring yourself gently back into the present moment and focus instead on all of the present good in your life and all that you have achieved since this hurt occurred.
  • Forgive wholeheartedly – We all make mistakes and will do so every day of our lives. We may not have to forget another person’s bad behaviors, but virtually everybody deserves our forgiveness. Sometimes we get stuck in our pain and our stubbornness, we can’t even imagine forgiveness. But forgiveness isn’t saying, “I agree with what you did.” Instead, it’s saying, “I don’t agree with what you did, but I forgive you anyway.”

Forgiveness isn’t a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s simply saying, “I’m a good person. You’re a good person. You did something that hurt me. But I want to move forward in my life and welcome joy back into it. I can’t do that fully until I let this go.”

One last point to consider: On Yom Kippur we do everything in our power to loosen ourselves from our physical, corporeal shackles and become spiritually elevated. We want to become pure like angels, and in a sense, emulate God as well. He describes himself as merciful and compassionate and our sages direct us to follow in His ways. “Just as He is merciful, you too shall be merciful. Just as He is compassionate, so too shall you demonstrate compassion.”

There is little that we can do to emulate our Maker more than to follow in His ways. Consider for a moment what it must “feel” like to be Him. Every day His Word is violated innumerable times. People know what’s right and yet fail to live up to that standard. Regularly and consciously. Does God hold grudges? Does he block our attempts at repentance? Of course not.  And while we recognize that God is not trapped by the human limitations that often block us, we can still use His compassionate, merciful standard as inspiration for our own behavior.