Yom Kippur: A Time to Forgive Others and Ourselves

By Mary Klaus

Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the Jewish year. It’s also one of the most challenging.

The Day of Atonement is a time to do more than fast, pray, and attend services, apologize to G-d for wrongs committed, and ask forgiveness. It’s also a time for Jews to go to people they have wronged and sincerely ask for forgiveness.

It’s a time to admit what we did wrong, feel true sorrow for it, and resolve not to repeat the offense. That’s easier said than done.

“Part of the reason asking for forgiveness is so hard is because it is inherently humbling to ask for forgiveness,” said Eva Siegel, a licensed clinical social worker and outpatient therapist at Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg. “To truly ask for forgiveness you have to really face up to and own what you have done. You have to confront the uncomfortable truth about yourself.”

Ed Beck, a retired licensed professional counselor, said that asking for forgiveness means that people have to admit to themselves and those they have offended that “we have hurt them in some way.” It also means being prepared not to be forgiven.

Calling forgiveness “empowering and psychologically helpful,” Siegel said that asking for forgiveness makes a person vulnerable and gives the other person the power to forgive or not forgive.

What’s the best way to seek forgiveness? Siegel said that a person should first acknowledge having done something that hurt the other person. Next, feel true remorse and let the wronged person know how much the relationship is valued.

“Be sincere in your apology without being defensive,” she said. “Own up to what you have done.  Tell them what you will do differently.”

Beck agreed, saying that “first, you must be truthful and accurate in acknowledging your transgression. Accept full responsibility and then offer a plan for repentance.”

It’s never too early to apologize, Siegel said, recommending making amends immediately after the wrong is done.

“If you have not done that and you know you hurt someone, you absolutely should make an apology before Yom Kippur starts,” she said. “You can do this in person, by phone, via email or Facebook, whatever means you want, but it should be personal.”

Many people need to work on both asking for and granting forgiveness. Holding onto anger and resentments “is literally damaging to our own health and well-being,” she said. “So, forgiving becomes about our own self-care more than it is about the other person's need to be forgiven.”

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Being able to forgive doesn’t happen instantly but requires time. “Forgiveness puts you in charge of the boundaries and expectations you have for the relationship going forward,” Siegel said.

Beck recommends that people be truthful when others ask them for forgiveness. He said that some transgressions are simply unforgiveable.

“If you cannot, will not, or are not ready to forgive, then you are well within you rights to say so,” he said. “Getting asked for forgiveness should not necessarily be a trigger for forgiving if you're not ready or don't want to. It's an entirely personal thing. There is no right or wrong about that, despite what we are taught.”

It’s equally challenging to forgive ourselves because this involves acknowledging the mistake we made and processing the emotions about it.

“Forgiveness is important to the healing process since it allows you to let go of the anger, guilt, shame, sadness, or any other feeling you may be experiencing, and move on,” Siegel added. “It's recognizing that we are not perfect human beings and we’re trying to learn from our mistakes.” She recommended showing ourselves as kindness and compassion.”

Self-forgiveness requires focusing on quieting our inner critics and to stop beating ourselves up, Siegel said. Sometimes, talking to a professional may help us learn new and healthier ways of coping with mistakes. This year, forgiveness of ourselves and others may be challenging because some people feel less connected due to the quarantine.

Beck said that forgiving oneself for unforgiveable actions is a personal matter with one's conscience, the offended, and what we believe.

“The best form of personal forgiveness is by learning from behavior and not repeating the behavior in need of forgiveness,” he said. “All of us make mistakes and in varying degrees, and we sometimes hurt others with them.”

Some Jews connect forgiveness with Tashlich, a ceremony usually held on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in which participants go to a flowing body of water, say prayers, and cast their sins, represented by bread crumbs, into the water. Both Beck and Siegel called the ceremony symbolic and not a substitute for asking forgiveness. 

“We are always responsible for our sins that need forgiveness,” Beck said. “Any symbolic act needs to be followed up by substantive repentance.”

He recommended that people read Practicing Forgiveness: A Path Towards Healing by Richard S. Balkin, a professor at the University of Mississippi, The book, which will be available on Amazon in December, is written from a Jewish perspective with Jewish teachings and principles.

So this Yom Kippur, forgive others and yourself with a full heart. Then, amend your behavior and go into the future with a sense of serenity.