Unforgiveness as a Spiritual Response to Family Strife: A Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi Heather Miller
BETH CHAYIM CHADASHIM, SEPTEMBER 22, 2015 — Soon, we will recite the Avinu Malkeynu. The prayer where we appeal to God as the quintessential merciful, attentive, invested-in-our-well-being, ideal Father who is inclined to help us.
My teacher, and liturgical scholar Rabbi Larry Hoffman suggests that the term Avinu/Our Father is meant to serve as a counterpoint to the term Malkeynu/Our King in this blessing. In fact, he says the terms Avinu and Malkeynu, “represent two opposite, yet complimentary, attributes of God. God is the merciful Parent, and at the same time, the just Ruler. The world is balanced, says the Midrash, between absolute compassion and rigorous application of justice.”1
This idea works for those who hear the word “Avinu/Father” and relate this term to a benevolent figure. But, then, there are the rest of us. Those of us who, when we come to the Avinu Malkeynu, we get viscerally uneasy because our fathers have not been symbols of mercy or comfort.
I know that when I hear this prayer, and see the words “Our Father” used to describe the Divine, I don’t know what to feel. My own relationship with my father is not so easy– it is very difficult to plead for help from a God described as a “Father.” It’s hard to admit this because idealizes fathers and families like that of the Cleaver family from Leave it to Beaver, or All in the Family, or the Brady Bunch or Father Knows Best.
Jewishly, there are idealized relationships between parents and children as well. The fifth of the Biblical Ten Commandments insists that we, “honor our father and mother.”2
Tenth century Baghdadi Jewish scholar and leader Saadia Gaon considered this commandment to be the most important of the Ten Commandments. And, Rabbi of the 20th century, Gunther Plaut, shares: “Parents are God’s representatives and partners in the rearing of their children, and children who fail to respect this special position are offending against God as well.”3
The Avinu Malkeynu prayer, where we plead to God as “Our Father” presumes that when we see the word Avinu, we feel that warmth of relationship and are comforted to ask God, Our Father, to pardon our failings. That we can easily relate to God described as a father because it assumes we easily relate to the father figure in our lives. The prayer, written by the rabbis, assumes that God and fathers in general, live up to the ideal as outlined in rabbinic writings.
The Babylonian Talmud, codified in the 5th century, tells us that the rabbis legislated that fathers were obligated to provide for the well being of their children. A father is commanded to: “circumcise his son, to redeem him [if he is a firstborn], to teach him Torah, to find him a partner, and to teach him a trade or profession.”4 “Some also say: to teach him to swim…as his life might depend upon it.”5
Eleventh century French Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki, also known as Rashi, insists that in the Torah, God is likened to an eagle who carries his young on his back because if attacked by a human, the eagle parent would rather take an arrow than allow harm to its children. Parents in the ideal mold are responsible, self-sacrificing figures. Perhaps the God as Father metaphor works for the many who do have fathers who live up to this type of ideal, and who take on this responsibility for their children with care.
But, the metaphor does not work for others. I know this because it is a fact that not every parent lives up to the ideal; not every parent fulfills even the basic requirements of parenthood. I know because some of you have told me. I know this because I have been told over the years of parents who have been abusive physically, emotionally, absent or just plain delinquent in fulfilling their responsibilities. I know this because there are plenty of songs about parents like this: for example the father in the song Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin who prioritized everything other than his son. Or the Fresh Prince’s parents– you know the ones who just don’t understand. Or the absent father in the Temptation’s song “Papa Was A Rollin Stone.”
And, if we look closer at Jewish texts, we learn that many parents fell short of the ideal in rabbinic and biblical times as well. In fact, enough parents missed the mark that the rabbis of the Talmud issued scathing punishments for parents who did not provide for their children.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we learn that, “When people would bring before Rab Yehudah [a case of a father who refused to support his young children] he used to tell them: [A snake] gives birth and casts the responsibility of caring for his young onto the community. When they brought such cases before R. Chisda, he used to tell them: Turn a pail upside down and make the father stand on it in public and announce about himself: ‘The raven takes care of its young, but this man [meaning himself] does not take care of his children!’”6 There are many parental failures described in the Bible as well.
Adam, the first father, failed parenthood. One of his sons killed the other in a jealous fit after a series of events that likely could have been prevented by some sound parenting.
Isaac caused great strife for his son Esau as well. When he gave his finest blessing to his younger son Jacob he left Esau to cry out with tones of both desperation and abandonment, “Have you left no blessing for me?!” What kind of parent blesses one child and leaves the other without?
In turn, Jacob failed parenting, too. He nearly caused fratricide by clearly favoring Joseph and giving him the famous technicolor dream coat. Joseph’s other brothers and sister must have felt the pain of rejection by their common father Jacob. But perhaps the worst example of parenting is taught by the father of Judaism– by the who we call Avraham Avinu/ Abraham Our Father, in texts that we read over these Days of Awe.
Briefly, Abraham bears a son named Ishmael with Hagar, his wife Sarah’s handmaiden. When Sarah eventually bears him a son of her own named Isaac, she orders Abraham to cast aside Ishmael– and he does!
But it gets worse. God then asks Abraham to make a sacrifice out of Isaac on an altar on Mount Moriah. And it appears that Abraham is ready to do so as he binds Isaac and raises a knife to his son. Only when an angel cries out does he abort the mission. The has been done. Isaac witnessed his father raising a knife-bearing hand to him. We know that from this point forward, Isaac’s relationship was strained with Abraham ever since that point. In fact, text reveals that they never spoke again.
And yet, isn’t this is the time of year to make amends precisely with those who have hurt us. This is the time of year that we are to free ourselves from pain, from anger, from resentment. This way, we ensure for ourselves a fresh start in the new Jewish year. We have each experienced the benefits of teshuva/repentance at one time or another.
Reconciliation feels good and gives us a chance to clear up any misunderstandings and return to the joy of the relationship we once had. But for those of us with discordant family lives, societal pressure to create a flawless family image, and Jewish pressure especially at this time of year to atone for one’s sins, creates a predicament for many of us. It can be experienced as shame or regret, humiliation or disrepute.
Every Yom Kippur, I try to ascertain if I have done everything I possibly can to make peace where there is none. To be generous in my forgiving as I hope God is with me. To be slow to anger and to keep from being hard hearted like Pharaoh. Have I done all that I can do to mend old hurts?
But I cannot tell you how many years I have sat in these pews obsessing over these questions because here I am at another Yom Kippur, and my relationship with my father is still strained. This year, especially as I have been trying to think about what kind of parent I will be, this relationship with my own father looms large. And the stakes are higher than ever because it will impact my son’s relationship with his biological grandfather.
I wonder, if Isaac were sitting here in these pews today, would Isaac feel guilty for not speaking with his father? Teshuvah/repentance, forgiveness, making amends– they’re all central Jewish values.
Yes. They serve as a check on our personal egos and our baser instincts of haughtiness and callousness.
But, to put pressure on a child like Isaac, who has experienced parental inflicted trauma, to open his heart to forgive, is unfair. Especially if his father Abraham himself has not done the necessary internal work of sincerely asking for forgiveness in the first place. Therefore, I also believe that sometimes, with intimate relationships, the healthier solution is to not forgive. Yes. I said it. On Yom Kippur. Sometimes, the way to inner peace and reconciliation is through unforgiveness.
Psychologist Dr. Jeanne Safer, author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not To Forgive, describes forgiveness and unforgiveness as existing on a spectrum. It can take different forms from complete estrangement to complete reconciliation and everything in between including varying levels of boundary setting.
As an example, Dr. Safer shares the story of Paul Thompson, the son of evangelical Christian founders of an organization devoted to converting gay people to heterosexuality. For years, Paul, a gay man, coexisted with his parents despite their contrary viewpoints. But, things changed when they gave a particularly piercing public interview. In the interview, Paul recalls, “They actually said that my being gay was a fate worse than death–in essence, that they would rather I had died. When my boyfriend and I broke up and I was devastated, my mother said it was ‘an answered prayer.’ …this is hatred masked as love.” He describes his path to peace with them as one of mourning rather than forgiving. When asked why he chooses this path instead of one of forgiveness, Paul says, “I won’t do it because it’s just a [surface level] ritual for [them], [going through the motions] not blood and guts. Real forgiveness has to be based on working to change; [they] want me to forgive [them] for something [they’re] going to keep doing.”7
For Paul, any act of forgiving would be inconsequential; nothing would change. For him, rather than false forgiveness, unforgiveness is the healthier choice. And, unforgiveness here is not vengeance. It is not continued negative behavior or drama or ill wishing. Unforgiveness is simply a drawing of boundaries to create personal safe space rather than continuing to open oneself up to harm.
Personally, I do believe that people can change, and just because unforgiveness is the choice this year for Paul, doesn’t mean that it needs to be the choice later. Godwilling his parents will see the hurt and pain they have caused him, search out their own hatred, and come to him enlightened and repentant.
But right now, at this juncture, when parents don’t understand or are unwilling to explore the depths of the problem, it is the healthier choice for Paul.
Sometimes reconciliation needs to take place within oneself– sometimes you need to put an end to the cycle of beating yourself up over a relationship that you have tried and tried to resolve. Even a relationship with a parent.
Interestingly, in the Torah, we are not commanded to love our parents. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that, “The Bible legislates love of neighbor, stranger and God, it does not do so for parents. In so vital and intense a relationship, love is too volatile an emotion to be commanded; therefore, the Bible demands a standard of honor and respect that can remain in force even in times of estrangement.”8
So now, as we turn to the Avinu Malkeynu, perhaps some of you will be like me, and think of Avinu not in the mold of a father, but as the more generic “Creator.” Or perhaps you will take a few moments to ponder the idea of God as the Talmudic ideal of a parent, a father figure that has the capacity to be benevolent and forgiving. Or you imagine God through a lens of your own parent, if they are still alive, currently or someday fulfilling the Talmudic obligations of parenthood.
If that doesn’t compute and you would rather take a few moments of personal meditation or take time to look around at the alternative readings and notes of this prayer on pages 112 and 662, your clergy team and I encourage you to do so. Remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” here. Many times, we know that a model of teshuva/repentance is the path to inner peace and reconciliation. We also know that at times unforgiveness is the path, and sometimes it is the ethical choice or spiritually healthy choice. And, we are always here to work through these issues with you. Please rise and turn to page 252.
1 Hoffman, Lawrence. Gates of Understanding 2. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984, pp. 25.
2 Exodus 20:12.
3 Plaut, W. Gunther (Ed.). The Torah: A Modern Commentary. p. 556.
4 Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a, in Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph in Jewish Wisdom. New York: William and Morrow, 1994, p. 153.
5 Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30b in Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph in Jewish Wisdom. New York: William and Morrow, 1994, p. 153.
6 Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 49b.
7 Safer, Dr. Jeanne. “Must You Forgive? Sometimes its healthier not to forgive.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199907/must-you-forgive
8 Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Wisdom. New York: William and Morrow, 1994, p. 147.