Feeding with a long-handled spoon

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Our Muslim brothers and sisters are in the middle of Ramadan, which commands both fasting and penitence, and shortly (Aug 7) my Jewish sisters and brothers will begin the long 40 day period of penitence and introspection that commences with the month of Elul and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As a congregational rabbi, I am asked quite often about the “sticky” matters relating to forgiveness.  In my tradition, we are obligated to forgive those who genuinely seek our pardon, who acknowledge the wrongs they have committed against us.  In turn, we are commanded to ask pardon of those whom we have wronged, and if applicable, make restitution.  But it is my experience that the majority of people are troubled not by those who honestly and openly seek our forgiveness, but those who refuse to acknowledge any harm they may have caused, indeed, are often quite oblivious to the pain that they have inflicted.  Over the years, I have been asked by genuinely pained and troubled people,  “Rabbi, how do I forgive my sister\neighbor\best friend when she\he won’t even acknowledge that they have wronged me?”   Even worse, too many people are burdened by feelings of anger and resentment that keep them from living happier, less troubled lives.  I have tried  to explain that if a person simply refuses to acknowledge a wrong they have caused, we cannot “forgive” in the classic Jewish sense, for forgiveness requires atonement on the part of the offender. However, we can forgive in the psychologically healthy sense, in that we learn to live with the new knowledge that this person is not who we thought they were, that they have indeed harmed us, and that as a result our relationship has diminished.  Even if we are required by circumstance to maintain some connection with them we should do so with the new and liberating understanding  that  the previous understanding of our relationship is no longer valid.  We allow the anger and resentment to be replaced by wisdom and experience.  I found a remarkable expression of this sentiment in today’s New York Times. (7/25/13).  An article profiling former colleagues of controversial chef Paula Deen focused on one of her close collaborators, Dora Charles.  Ms. Charles states that she was promised by Ms. Deen considerable financial benefits from her extensive collaboration and work, but despite her loyalty she was abandoned by Ms Deen and now lives in meager circumstances in a trailer park.  When asked about forgiveness, she says “I still have to be her friend if I’m God’s child.  I might feed her with a long- handled spoon, but yeah I’m still her friend.”  In other words, there is still relationship, but there is unbridgeable distance.  Ms. Charles offers the perfect metaphor for what I have been lamely trying to explain to my distressed congregants all these years.  Sometimes, when you have to stay in relationship with someone that has disappointed or injured you and refuses to acknowledge the fact, all we can do is “feed them with the long -handled spoon.”

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