Learning to Forgive
Five ways to let go this Yom Kippur.
It happened right before my first exam in college. I opened the small fridge, grabbed a bottle from the package of water that I shared with my roommate and drank it while I was looking over my notes one last time. As I was drinking it my roommate walked in and stared at me with a look of utter horror across her face.
“You’re drinking the water bottle with the X on it,” she said, lunging towards me to grab the bottle.
“What X? What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I put some stuff in that one to help me sleep. I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but that’s why I put that big X on the back of it,” she explained.
I looked at my roommate, a, shy, studious girl from some town I had never heard of. On the first day as we were setting up our room she told me, “You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met.” As a native New Yorker, that struck me as absurd, but she was the first religious Catholic that became my friend and my ignorance must have seemed strange to her too.
I tried to reconcile her nightly prayers and spiritual posters with this new information that she had put drugs into a Poland Spring bottle. I stared down at my notes and then up again at her. The professor’s voice echoed in my mind: There will be no make ups for this exam.
“I’m sorry,” she almost whispered.
I closed my notebook and stood up. I felt okay, but I was starting to get nervous. And angry. “How much was in there?” I asked, pushing my desk chair back.
“You’re going to fall asleep,” she said lamely.
“I have an exam in ten minutes. I have to take it. I can’t believe you did this.” I pulled on my jacket.
“I marked the bottle. I was going to warn you,” she mumbled.
“Yeah, but you didn’t. And now I’m going to fail because of you.”
I slammed the door behind me just as I heard her last plea echoing behind me. “I’m really sorry, but you shouldn’t go. You might fall asleep there.”
I made it through the exam somehow, fighting to keep myself awake. Fortunately it was multiple choice and somehow I passed. But afterwards, as I lay down in the dorm and finally slept, I felt the first flicker of resentment wash over me. And I wondered how I was going to last for the rest of the year with a roommate like this. Over the next couple of weeks, I did my best to ignore her besides for a few sentences here and there. I went about my life, and she went about hers. I moved my water bottles to my desk. I stayed out late and woke up early.
Until it was erev Yom Kippur. I was on my way out the door when my roommate looked up from her books.
“Why are you all dressed up? It’s not the Jewish Sabbath yet.”
I stood with my hand on the doorknob and glanced at myself in the mirror. I saw my white cardigan. I saw the machzor in my arms and then I saw my face – angry, guarded, resentful. I looked down at the floor. I am so ashamed of myself, I suddenly realized. I can’t even look in the mirror. It suddenly dawned on me how difficult it must be to live with me. My alarm clock going off before dawn every day. The light over my bed that my roommate remembered to leave alone each Shabbos. My snobby crowd of sorority friends who floated in on Saturday nights without even saying hello to her. My entitled nature that wove its way through my designer wardrobe and self -absorbed impatience. I looked up again into the mirror and thought: I am a hard person to live with.
“No, this is a different holiday.”
It’s Yom Kippur. I’m about to ask God for forgiveness, and I can’t even look my roommate in the eye. It’s Yom Kippur. I’m about to stand for hours in prayer. About to fast. About to plead for life. And I can’t even look at myself in the mirror.
I put down my machzor on my desk and sat down. I looked at my roommate and opened my mouth to apologize, but the words wouldn’t come out. I didn’t know what to say. We sat there for a moment as the sun began its descent, and I began to panic. Yom Kippur was about to start, and I couldn’t even speak.
But my roommate seemed to sense my struggle. “It’s okay,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I finally told her.
“I know. It’s okay. Your light stays on for this holiday too?” she asked looking across the room at the lamp near my bed.
“Yeah. Thank you by the way. Thank you for being such a great roommate.” She smiled as I rushed out the door, watching the image of white flash by in the mirror, a reflection of forgiveness turned in on itself.
It’s Yom Kippur. A time to forgive and accept forgiveness. A time to let go.
Here are five ways to let go:
1. Look in the Mirror. Recognize that you are a difficult person to live with, that you have your own imperfections and limitations that others have to deal with all the time. Forgive the weaknesses of others the same way you overlook your own mistakes.
2. See the Big Picture. Think of Yom Kippur as a lookout on the top of a mountain that you have been climbing all year. See your days and their moments spread out before you. Be willing to look now at this big picture of your life. Your ultimate goals. Your beliefs. See each person in your life as part of that picture. What lesson have they taught you even if you had to learn it through pain? What message is God sending you by putting this person in your life?
3. Say Something. Asking forgiveness doesn’t require a long letter or a meticulously planned speech. Often we just need to say something. Anything. I’m sorry. Let’s start over. I want to talk. It’s that first step that begins to chip away at the buried resentment.
4. Break the Cycle. Sometimes we get into patterns with people that we love that aren’t working. Even if you feel that you are ‘right,’ break out of the cycle. Stop having the same argument over and over again. Have the courage to put blame aside and say: Let’s start over. “Insanity is not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; insanity is doing the same thing over and over again knowing full well what the results will be.” Anonymous
5. Forgive Life. Sometimes we resent others for hard circumstances in our own lives. It is easier to blame people than to face our own disappointments. We need to go one step further. To forgive God for all of our frustrations and challenges. To forgive Him for hiding His Face when we needed Him most. To forgive Him for the times when it seemed like He gave up on us altogether. To now turn around and say thank You. For life. For another chance. For the gift of forgiveness itself. Knock incessantly on the closing gate of Yom Kippur. He wants to forgive us and for us to forgive.