Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal
Rabbi Grushcow: As we come towards Rosh Hashanah, as much as the events of the world concern us, it is clear to me that, above all, people are most concerned with their family relationships. Parents and children, siblings, spouses – all these relationships have their own challenges and their own blessings. For every family that comes together for an honour or shares a meal on the High Holidays, there is another that is distant. For every simchah – a new engagement or a milestone anniversary, a new baby, a new accomplishment – there are those carrying tzuris and feeling loss.
I imagine that you, like me, do a significant amount of counselling and pastoral care in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. But I also think about how we can address some of these varied family realities from the bimah on the Days of Awe. For example, when we invite new parents to bring up their babies, we recall the story of Hannah and recognize the pain of infertility, offering a prayer for all those who hope to conceive.
How do you approach these challenges?
Rabbi Korobkin: The High Holidays can have the unintended side-effect of reopening old relationship wounds. We know that these days are meant for repentance. Our tradition calls upon us to ask for forgiveness from both God and man. We must in turn be forgiving of others. But how does one whose spouse was unfaithful find it in their heart to forgive? How does one forgive a sibling or business partner who embezzled money from a shared family trust or business? How does a child forgive a parent for years of abuse?
Many in our communities carry the heavy burdens of past injuries and betrayals inflicted by loved ones. So, it’s not surprising that clergy often increase counselling during the High Holiday season, for those who are truly seeking to forgive but whose pain runs so deep that they don’t know how to even begin.
Years ago, Elie Wiesel wrote an article about forgiving God for the Holocaust. His theme was that he needed to forgive God not for God’s sake, but for his own sake. The pain that we carry in our hearts needs to be released not for the sake of our oppressor, who may not deserve forgiveness, but for our own sake, so that we can start healing.
Rabbi Grushcow: There is a wonderful series of short films entitled “Jewish Food for Thought.” In one episode, a character is having trouble finding a way to forgive someone who has wronged him. His father suggests that the son is letting the person who hurt him live rent-free in his brain.
Living in a predominantly Christian society, I actually think we focus disproportionally on forgiveness. The Jewish model, which to me is much more powerful, focuses more on tshuvah (repentance). I can’t control someone who has wronged me – they may not even see the need to ask for forgiveness, or what they did might be unforgivable – but I can, and must, improve my own actions and use these days to try to become my best self.
Asking for forgiveness and being forgiven are essential parts of being human. We need to own up when we make mistakes and give others the second chances that we would want to be given. But sometimes, focusing on forgiveness can be a dead end. Ultimately, our own choices, and our own tshuvah, are what define us.
Rabbi Korobkin: You’re right, sometimes it’s not possible to forgive. In those situations, I recommend granting a “release” instead – letting go of the pain of holding onto that emotional debt incurred by the injuring party. We’re not forgiving them, but we’re at least releasing the hold they have on our lives. This kind of release is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.
And in the spirit of tshuvah and becoming closer to God and each other, let me express my gratitude for the opportunity to correspond with you in this forum and to become closer to a Jewish sister who cares about our people as I do. May God bless you and all our people with a year filled with goodness, consolation and blessing.