The Three Kinds of Forgiveness

We are right in the middle of the holiday season.  Hanukkah is here.  Christmas Eve is the day after tomorrow.  Kwanzaa begins on Friday.  These are holidays that involve gathering with communities and families.  Because of that, the holiday season can be a much anticipated season of joy or, conversely, pain for people.  It’s probably bittersweet for most.  No family is perfect, and no community is without its flaws.

But, what about those people who have found themselves in exile? I want to talk about that.  Sometimes I think I’ll be able to put this idea to rest, but I’m asked about it often enough that I think it will be a topic that is always discussed.  Ultimately, that topic is forgiveness.

So, what does forgiveness mean exactly? Let’s go back to what the Jewish rabbis taught keeping in mind that Jesus was a Jew, too.  He would have been aware of these ideas.  There are three kinds of forgiveness as explained by Rabbi Irwin Kula in his book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:

  • selicha
  • mechila
  • kappara

Mechila, Rabbi Kula explains, is the only kind of forgiveness that we can ask for and expect to receive, and I suspect this is the forgiveness referenced in the Lord’s Prayer.  It is akin to a legal pardon.  It translates to simply saying, “You don’t owe me anything for what you have done.”  What’s more, it doesn’t have to register emotionally.  It’s an act of the will.  We engage in mechila daily whether we know it or not.  It’s not necessarily having the metaphorical slate wiped clean, but it’s enough.  It’s not what we yearn for, is it? It’s not transformative forgiveness in which we are cleansed as white as snow, but our debt is cancelled.

When does mechila apply? Well, I’d say that we engage in this type of forgiveness in all our relationships.

  • “Sorry I was late.”
  • “Sorry that I broke your favorite vase.”
  • “Sorry, Mom…”
  • “Sorry, Dad…”
  • “Sorry, Honey…”
  • “Sorry, Robert, that I interrupted you during your presentation.”

How many times do we owe someone an apology? How many times do we take a joke too far? How many times have we embarrassed someone or insulted someone or forgotten something important? How many times have we unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings? To err is human.  If we have relationships, then we will be engaging in mechila almost daily.  Here is the problem.  Many well-meaning, or sometimes not so well-meaning, people expect others to apply the principles behind mechila to extreme circumstances where mechila no longer applies.

This is where selicha becomes relevant. As Rabbi Kula explains, selicha is a process rather than a moment in time, and it’s not something we can ever expect or ask for.  It’s a forgiveness born of a heartfelt empathy for the transgressor, and an ability to see the widest possible context, even the positive outcome of the conflict.  Selicha takes time particularly if the hurt is great.  It often unfolds in the course of living and growing together.  Kula goes on to say that pain can coexist with healing and forgiveness, becoming softer and less central over time.  “Often we emerge stronger, clearer, and wiser when we wrestle with forgiveness, no matter the outcome…Even if reconciliation occurs, it doesn’t mean the relationship continues where it left off.”

Clearly, selicha is not mechila.  What a refreshment and relief to see a religious leader finally differentiate between types of forgiveness.  It is healing because there are those of us who have been browbeaten, judged, and alienated by people in religious circles for committing to the process of sechila while being told that we were, in fact, unforgiving and wrong.  The truth of the matter is that not everyone can be lived with.  There are abusers who will continue to abuse.  There are unsafe people in the world who, given an inch, will take a life.  And, there are those of us who do wrestle with forgiveness with great commitment.  It’s just that our process and life may not look like someone else’s.  Perhaps that makes others uncomfortable.  Not everyone’s family looks the same.  Not every child has a grandparent, and not every man and woman has a relationship with a mom or dad.  We all must make our way and create a good life.  We all must wrestle at some point.  Rabbi Kula states this clearly:

Forgiveness so often comes into play in bold relief when it comes to our mothers and fathers.  Everyone has to come to terms with negative or conflicted feelings about their parents, no matter how loving the relationship.  What makes it so difficult is that we have three sets of parents: the ones who raised us and with whom we actively struggled; those who live in our memory today; and our living parents (assuming they are still alive).  The parents in our memory have larger-than-life dimensions.  They are the ones who adored us and ignored us, whom we idealized and demonized.  Our parents today are people like us, with fears and flaws, trials and conflicts.  And they likely will never live up to our childhood expectations and hopes, which are often still with us in adulthood, whether we’re aware of them or not.  Our job is to separate these three manifestations and work as best we can toward reconciliation, trying not to carry too much baggage of the past into the present, while always engaging with it.  Our first great shock is when we realize that our parents are not God, and our next shock is when realize that God is not our parent.  This realization is the beginning of forgiveness for our parents and for God. (168 Kula)

The principles of mechila cannot be applied here.  Selicha is a process rather than an event.  Sometimes it’s a lifelong process.  Sometimes relational reconciliation is not possible.  Nonetheless, selicha is still vital to our healing.  Wrestling with forgiveness is still part of healing for our own well-being regardless of whether we will ever be able to return to a relationship with the person or group that harmed us.

The final form of forgiveness is kappara, and, according to Rabbi Kula, it is the forgiveness that we all yearn for.  Kappara can only be granted by God.  It can’t be earned or asked for.  According to Kula, it comes after asking and all the work.  It can’t be predicted or expected.  It is the kind of forgiveness that wipes the slate clean.  It cancels out the offense.  Rabbi Kula wrote, “In Christian language, it is grace.”  He goes on to write, “In psychological language, it’s an inner experience of return, of feeling whole again.  We are able to integrate our transgressions into a more expanded self.  And we likely have a sense of expansion, of tremendous relief and elevation.”  I have had this experience just as I have experienced mechila and continue to experience selicha.

What does this mean for us? Well, I want to emphasize that there is more than one way to forgive.  That’s plain to see.  So, if you have ever been judged or condemned because you have not been able to quickly bounce back from a painful situation and easily attain “relationship re-entry”, then I encourage you to let yourself off the hook.  Secondly, if the holiday season amplifies feelings of pain or heartbrokenness in you due to difficult circumstances, then I offer an opportunity to reframe:

There’s a story about the Israelites receiving the second set of Ten Commandments on Yom Kippur…After forty days atop Mt. Sinai, Moses came down with the tablets.  What could be more holy? But contrary to popular belief, these are not the set the Israelites received.  When Moses saw the people worshipping the golden calf (a blatant defiance of the first three commandments), he did the unthinkable.  He smashed the tablets in rage.  Then he returned to the mountain for another forty days, during which time he managed to convince an even more enraged God not to destroy the people.  When Moses returned to the Israelites he brought new tablets that he himself had created.  These were the commandments the people received, and this is the event Yom Kippur remembers.

There is no great moment of healing or repair in this story.  Yes, of course, the people showed regret but, as in our own lives, the slate is not wiped clean.  Something even more amazing happens.  Moses places the old, smashed tablets in the Holy Ark along with the new, intact ones.  The relationship continues; the covenant is renewed with the brokenness on the inside.  There is no perfect reconciliation, no permanent forgiveness, nor forgetting.  But betrayal is not the last word.  There is a larger context.  Love and betrayal can merge into and out of one another in astonishing ways.  There is always a more enveloping pattern–and forgiveness is the most enveloping of all.

The mistakes we make and the wrongs that are done to us need not imprison us in some dark place.  Rather we should always remember that wholeness and brokenness can be held together in a sacred place.  The tradition teaches that in the days of the ancient Temple, the Ark resided in the innermost chamber called the Holy of Holies.  This place was so powerful that only the High Priest could enter the room, and then, only on Yom Kippur.  On this day we are meant to remember our brokenness; and this alone is healing.  As the Hasidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotsk taught, “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.” (179 Kula)

Life is messy.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes they make horrible mistakes–repeatedly.  Seemingly irreparable mistakes.  As the tradition teaches, however, brokenness and wholeness are woven together.  There is no magical moment when this happens.  I do believe this.  Pain does indeed coexist with healing, but the existence of pain doesn’t negate the healing attained.  It just means that you’re human.  You’ve lived.  You’ve got life experience.  With that life experience comes wisdom.

With that, I wish you all, dear readers, a blessed holiday.


Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula

One Comment on “The Three Kinds of Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: Atonement and Forgiveness: Another Perspective | Out of the Mire

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