Sunday, April 18, 2021

Portion Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: M'chilah/Forgiveness

This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, marks the halfway point of the Torah cycle, and it stands at the center of the text both geographically and metaphorically.  The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains many of the best-known moral imperatives from our tradition.  It commands us to strive for holiness, keep Shabbat, care for the poor, and honor the stranger in our midst.  It is also the source of the famous teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’rayechah camochah).

The words immediately preceding that “Golden Rule” are less widely recognized but of equal importance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  This implies that in order to love our neighbor, we must be willing to forgive their wrongdoings and not dwell on past hurts.  Of course, this is much easier said than done.  We tend to remember every time people hurt or slight us, much more vividly than we recall their acts of lovingkindness on our behalf.  This propensity to dwell on old injuries and injustices can easily lead to an obsession with victimhood that destroys our ability to move forward in our lives.

Recognizing this difficulty, Maimonides notes: “The desire for revenge is a very bad trait and we must do our best to relinquish it.  One way is to realize that many things that prompt our wrath are vanity and emptiness and are not worth seeking revenge for.”  To which the late, great contemporary teacher Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.  Why would anybody allow that?”

It is no accident that we read Kedoshim, with its injunction against grudge-bearing and vengeance, in this season of spring.  The omnipresent rebirth in the natural world reminds us that we, too, can start anew in our personal relationships.  And the journey from Pesach to Shavuot encourages us to leave behind the narrow places of heart and spirit that are our Egypts, our Mitzrayim.  Our path to Mount Sinai—and true freedom—starts with getting those destructive, rent-free tenants out of our heads.

Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week’s midah/character trait is forgiveness, or m’chilah.  

It is customary to offer forgiveness every night before going to sleep.  The traditional bedtime prayers include this passage:

Source of the Universe:
I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me
And whoever has done me any wrong,
Whether it was deliberately or by accident,
Whether it was done by word or by deed
May no one be punished on my account

For the rest of this week, make this prayer part of your nightly routine.  Use it as an opportunity to make an examination of your conscience for the day.  You might do this following the practice of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who taught: 

Check your relationships and make an act of forgiveness.
Recalling whatever frustration and hurt was experienced during the day, at the hands of others, visualize them written on slips of paper.  Rip these up one by one, fully forgiving those who hurt you as you say the words of the prayer.

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