Looking Forward is Looking Back

By Steven Schauder, Executive Director, Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, invites us to reflect on the year that was and on the year that lies ahead. While so many of us desire to put the past year behind us and never look back, I’m reminded of one of William Faulkner’s most famous quotes in his novel, Requiem for a Nun. The novel revolves around a young woman on trial for murder who is seeking redemption for past sins and in the course of the story, her defense attorney utters, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

As much as we all want to move on with life, we find ourselves still in some type of limbo state, not quite past the Covid-19 crisis, but not able to move fully forward. Our past shapes us and influences so many of our choices, and while each day we are given the opportunity to choose to be the most decent and most compassionate versions of ourselves, we need to recognize that moving forward often involves looking back.

As this Covid crisis continues, it is critical for us to reflect back on how the past year affected us. Judaism may have invented nostalgia---what other religion reenacts the biblical experience of eating the same meal that was eaten by our ancestors on the night they left Egypt thousands of years ago?  The High Holidays is the subtle interplay between recognizing our failings over the past year, with the hope to be a better person in the year ahead.

Part of my professional career was spent as the Executive Director of a nonprofit treatment center for low-income women struggling with both mental health and substance abuse issues. The work of the agency was built on the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I was deeply impressed with the spiritual underpinning of the recovery movement. In Step Eight of the process, a person needs to make a list of all persons that they harmed with the intention of making amends to them directly, while Step Nine is built on making amends wherever possible to those who were hurt, except when to do so would injure the other person.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish commentator, taught that: “Yom Kippur wipes clean wrongs committed between a person and God.  For Yom Kippur to atone for sins between people a person must go and ask for forgiveness.” While I will leave it to our Rabbis and Sages to share the preferred formulas within Judaism for asking for forgiveness, as a mental health professional, I will share some insights on forgiveness from Prof. Everett L. Worthington Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University, who is a psychologist who studies forgiveness. He developed the acronym “CONFESS” to describe what makes a meaningful request for forgiveness:

C-Confess without excuse. Be specific about what you’re sorry for (“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary.”). Do not offer any kind of excuse. Do not let the word but come out of your mouth.

O-Offer an apology that gets across the idea that you’re sorry, and that you don’t want to do it again. Be sincere and articulate.


N-Note the other person’s pain. Acknowledge that your actions were hurtful.

F-Forever value. Explain that you value your relationship, and you want to restore it more than you want to hang onto your pride.

E-Equalize. Offer retribution. Ask how you can make it up to the person.

S-Say “never again.” Promise that you won’t do it again (and mean it).

S-Seek forgiveness. Ask the other person directly, “Can you forgive me?”

Maimonides, Dr. Worthington, and AA will acknowledge that it may take time for the other person to offer forgiveness and that the other person may have been too hurt to ever offer forgiveness. In all cases, it is the sincere desire in acknowledging the past wrong and seeking amends that serves as the prerequisite for finding healing and wholeness.

On behalf of the Board and Staff of Jewish Family Service, I want to offer everyone my deepest wishes for a Shana Tova and a year of health, happiness, and peace for all of us and our families.