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Forgiving the Unforgivable Is a Personal Choice

This post first appeared on The Times of Israel


By Orly Benaroch Light


Last Sunday, I immersed myself in a day of community, learning, and exploration at the Jewish Community Center in San Diego. One of the sessions I attended was “The Broken Well: A Personal Perspective on October 7,” led by Dr. Dan Rabinowitz, a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.


Dr. Rabinowitz shared a personal story about his close bond with his favorite first cousin, Adi who was raised in Kibbutz Be’eri. Growing up, Dr. Rabinowitz, who lived in Haifa, spent summers at the Kibbutz visiting Adi, his family, and friends. He shared a glimpse of their relationship through text messages exchanged on the morning of October 7. Adi and his wife were hiding in a security room, along with a couple who had escaped from the Nova music festival and found their way to his house. By early afternoon, however, all communication with Adi abruptly stopped. 


Dr. Rabinowitz showed us a detailed diagram, including photographs mapping the fate of Adi, his friends, and their families on that tragic day. He detailed the devastating losses including those who died, were mourning lost loved ones, and were kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Among those killed were Adi and his wife.


Leaving the session with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I headed to the final event on my agenda, “Why Would I Ever Want to Forgive a Person Who Hurt Me?” The session was led by Hanan Harchol, a New York-based filmmaker, animator, artist, classical guitarist, and teacher. Harchol's unique project, “Jewish Food for Thought,” combines animated narratives with Jewish ethical teachings, showcasing thought-provoking dialogues between Harchol and his Israeli parents. 


The topic piqued my interest and curiosity. 


At some point, we have all felt wronged by those close to us. From betrayals by family members and disappointments in friendships to being taken for granted, these wounds are familiar.  


Common wisdom echoed in countless movies, fortune cookies, and age-old parables, tells us that finding inner peace means mastering the art of forgiveness. But how? This question lingered in my mind as I dove deeper into Harchol's “Food for Thought,” to uncover his insights on nourishing both body and soul. 


Harchol does not have a medical degree but brings a wealth of understanding to his animations through meticulous research of ancient Jewish text, applying their timeless wisdom to modern-day life. 

His goal is to contribute to the healing of the world by imparting these insights to enrich and add depth to our journeys. One thought he shared on forgiveness resonated deeply with me. He explained, “If we are harboring resentment for someone, or holding onto something a person said or did years ago, and are still upset about it, then we are letting this person live rent-free in our brain and all they’re doing is making a mess and destroying the place. Feeling angry and upset all the time takes its toll. At some point, we must learn that the space in our brain is prime real estate and it’s ok to evict any tenant who’s dragging us down.” 

This perspective invites us to reconsider how we deal with emotional baggage and the impact of holding onto resentment.


It makes sense intellectually but brings up a sensitive point. 


The path to forgiveness can be uniquely challenging for survivors of severe trauma, especially when the harm comes from those who were supposed to offer love, protection, and care, but instead inflicted physical, emotional, or psychological abuse. When that foundation of trust is shattered, the idea of forgiveness becomes complex and deeply personal.  


For survivors of abuse and violence, including those impacted by acts of terror like the October 7 massacre committed by Hamas, the question of forgiveness is intertwined with issues of justice, healing, and sometimes the pursuit of accountability.


The act of forgiving, in this context, is not about excusing the perpetrators or diminishing the severity of their actions. Instead, if considered, it’s a personal journey that some may choose as a step toward reclaiming their sense of self and moving forward.


Research shows that forgiveness can positively impact both physical and mental health. The specific impact of forgiveness on survivors of trauma, however, remains under-explored, with little attention given to the possibility that forgiveness could, in some cases, hinder the healing process. 


Everyone has opinions, but it’s important to discern whose advice to take. Being clergy, therapists, family, or friends doesn’t automatically give someone insight into what’s best for us. The onslaught of positive thinking messages promoting the virtues of forgiveness on social media can make it challenging. If forgiveness doesn’t come easily, these messages may cause us to question our own well-being.


Victims of abuse should never be pressured into offering forgiveness to their abusers because it is perceived as the right thing to do.


Harchol emphasizes the importance of respecting each survivor’s autonomy and healing process, affirming that victims of abuse should never feel coerced into forgiving their perpetrators. The priority, he says, should always be the survivor’s safety, dignity, and psychological welfare. What heals one individual may not be suitable or beneficial for another.


So, who do we need to forgive in trauma recovery?


Experienced therapists emphasize that healing and forgiveness are deeply personal and unique journeys. Frequently, the path to healing doesn’t begin with forgiving the abuser, but rather with forgiving oneself. Victims may carry immense shame for having been victimized or carry guilt for not preventing a loved one’s abuse. These burdens can become so entrenched that discerning where the blame truly lies gets blurred. 


Misdirected anger compounds the emotional pain, affecting not just the individual but also those around them. This cycle of self-directed resentment and guilt hinders healing, making the act of self-forgiveness a crucial first step on the road to recovery.


Dr. Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion says, “Forgiveness is about self-compassion. We need to be kind and loving to the person inside us who was so badly hurt. We need to cut ourselves some slack and forgive ourselves for doing the best we could at the time. We need to give understanding to the adults who could do nothing to protect their loved ones from evil. That is how we recover. That is how we start to heal.” 


These two workshops gave me much food for thought in trying to understand my own feelings about forgiveness.

 

There are instances when not forgiving the abuser is the result of deep emotional work and careful consideration; inner peace can be found with that decision. Reaching a resolution that aligns with our boundaries and values is more important than the form it takes. It’s a personal journey for each of us that is not to be judged or shamed.


I don’t believe we should ever forgive and forget any crimes committed against humanity including the Holocaust and countless others that have occurred around the world.


Perhaps the pain and rage that Israelis and Jews feel towards Hamas and the atrocities they committed on October 7 isn’t entirely unhealthy. It will hopefully act as a potent reminder that Hamas has vilified Jews for decades and we can never let anything like this happen again.


These events and emotions reinforce the importance of who we choose to be our political leaders, proactive community safety measures that can be taken, and evaluating our personal relationships and interactions.


While holding onto these feelings may breed lasting hostility, they may also prevent us from experiencing future tragedies of this magnitude.


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