A few years ago, our then Rabbinic Intern, now Rabbi Alissa Forrest, gave a sermon on Erev Rosh Hashana about forgiveness, which focused on forgiveness for particularly aggregious sins. In it, she quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People):
One year, my Yom Kippur sermon was on the theme of forgiveness. The next day, a woman came to see me, very upset about the sermon. She told me how, 10 years earlier, her husband had left her for a younger woman and she has had to raise two children by herself for the past 10 years. She asked me angrily, “And you want me to forgive him for what he did to us?”
I told her, “Yes, I want you to forgive him. Not to excuse him, not to say that what he did was acceptable, but to forgive him as a way of saying that someone who would do that has no right to live inside your head any more than he has the right to live inside your house. Why are you giving a man like that the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful woman? He doesn’t deserve that power over you.”
Forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable. When we understand we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.