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Forgiveness--Yom Kippur 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 3:24 PM by Heidi Hoover

In early September, a new memoir called Small Fry was published. It was written by the daughter of Steve Jobs, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple computers, which expanded from personal computers to the iPhone and the iPad and other i-things. He died in 2011. I haven’t actually read the book, but there is a New York Times article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs and her memoir, and the article is fascinating.

The title of the article is “In ‘Small Fry,’ Steve Jobs Comes Across as a Jerk. His Daughter Forgives Him. Should We?” Lisa Brennan-Jobs has written a book that is her attempt to portray her life with Steve Jobs honestly, and to say that she loves him even though he treated her terribly in many ways, and that the good times she had with him far outweigh the bad.

Brennan-Jobs was born when her father was 23 years old, and for many years he denied being her father, even after a paternity test showed that he was. Once he did recognize her as his daughter, the Times article says, he often treated her viciously. Some examples, and how she interprets them:

When Steve Jobs told his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs that the Apple Lisa computer was not named after her, it was not a cruel lie to a little girl, she insists — he was teaching her “not to ride on his coattails.”

When Mr. Jobs refused to install heat in her bedroom, he was not being callous, she says — he was instilling in her a “value system.”

When a dying Mr. Jobs told Ms. Brennan-Jobs that she smelled “like a toilet,” it was not a hateful snipe, she maintains — he was merely showing her “honesty.”


Today, Yom Kippur, is the last of this year’s Days of Awe. We are confessing, we are atoning, we are asking for forgiveness, perhaps we are also forgiving. The article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s memoir raises questions about how forgiveness works. There are some differences between approaches to forgiveness in different religious traditions—of course, we’re concerned with the Jewish approach.

Questions that we face all the time about forgiveness, but especially at this time of year, include: How does forgiveness work? Must we or should we or can we forgive someone who has not asked us for forgiveness? How do we go about forgiving? And who do we have the right to forgive?

In his book, On Apology, Aaron Lazare discusses different kinds of forgiveness: forgiveness without an apology; forgiveness (or partial forgiveness) in advance of an apology; and forgiveness after an apology.

The case of Lisa Brennan-Jobs is forgiveness without an apology. This kind of forgiveness is most often engaged in by people who are trying to relieve their own pain, the burden of anger or rage or hurt they are carrying, by forgiving the person who harmed them. In many cases the person who caused the harm has died, or they are otherwise inaccessible—the relationship has ended because it is traumatizing to interact with them or otherwise unhealthy or unsafe.

I don’t know if Brennan-Jobs’s approach is a healthy one: She appears to have interpreted events and behaviors by her father that seem to be nasty at best and abusive at worst as being his attempts to help her. She values the sweet, good moments and times they had together. It’s not my place to judge how she copes. I expect she has done what she needs to do to survive.

There are different kinds of forgiveness in Jewish tradition. One, mechila, means basically remitting a debt. We recognize that the person who harmed us no longer owes us anything. We might or might not feel loving toward them, but we let go of any expectation that they will pay us back in some way for the harm they’ve done.

Lazare points out in On Apology that if the person who harmed us is still around, and we decide to forgive them for ourselves without an apology, we may be giving up the chance to repair the relationship—because possibly, if we speak to them and tell them how they’ve harmed us, they might choose to apologize.

I want to emphasize that there are cases when it would be to no avail—and would be dangerous, emotionally or physically—to confront someone who has harmed us. The suggestion of telling someone they’ve harmed us to give them the chance to make amends is not for those situations. For many people it doesn’t feel safe to tell someone they’ve harmed us—there is a vulnerability to that, just as there is a vulnerability to asking for forgiveness. There is the potential to save and deepen relationships if we can trust people enough to tell them they’ve hurt us.

There are cases where people offer forgiveness—or partial forgiveness—first, which can make it possible for the person who did the harm to then apologize. In this case, the harmed person starts the journey, and the person who did the harm meets them partway, and they proceed to full repentance and forgiveness together.

The third, and probably the most desirable outcome for most of us when someone has hurt us, is for the person to wish to make things right, and to attempt to do so. If they are sincere, and if we believe them, we often can forgive. Aaron Lazare writes that a sincere and honest apology “meets the psychological needs of the offended party. It restores the damage that was done. It heals a wound that will not heal spontaneously…. The apology restores the dignity of the offended party, assures that both parties share the same value system, assures the safety of the offended party, assures the offended party that the offender has suffered, as well as meets several other needs.” (On Apology, pp. 241-242)

A sincere apology for wrongdoing is not easy. When we ask someone we’ve harmed for forgiveness, we give them power, and we are vulnerable before them. For true teshuvah, David R. Blumenthal, professor of Judaic Studies at Emory, notes that there are five elements: Recognizing your own wrongdoing (hakarat ha-chet), feeling remorse (charata), confessing what you’ve done (vidui) desisting from the sin (azivat ha-chet), and making restitution when possible (peira’on). 

 A real apology begins with recognition that you’ve caused harm. Then you must feel and express remorse for having done it—regret for having done the action, not just regret for offense or hurt experienced by the other person. When given the opportunity to repeat the sin, you don’t do the same thing again. If possible, you must make restitution.

Not every situation calls for all of these steps in a detailed fashion. If you reach out to someone and say something like, “I cut you off in the meeting the other day—I’m sorry, and I’ll try to hear you out from now on,” and the person says, “Thanks, don’t worry about it,” you’re done.

And some situations require time before the harmed person forgives, because some hurts linger and are not easily healed regardless of the desire on the part of the person who did the harm to do t’shuvah. Sometimes the harmed person needs to see a real change in the other person before forgiveness is possible.

It can be hard to get a handle on what forgiveness is, and what it feels like. This is something I struggle with, and maybe you do too, sometimes.

Forgiveness can take different forms. One I already mentioned: mechila, when you recognize that the other person no longer owes you anything. For me, this is when I realize that perhaps the other person doesn’t have the capacity to recognize the harm they’ve done, so I let go of any expectation that they ever will. That might impact the relationship, in that I change my expectations of their behavior and consequently might not open up to them as much as I otherwise would. But I’m not waiting for them to make things right, and there’s a freedom to that.

Another way to bring yourself toward forgiveness may be to think about what you love about the person. If they have expressed remorse and you believe that remorse is real, seeing it in the whole context of a relationship that has more positive than negative in it could move you toward being able to forgive. Jewish tradition calls this s’licha. We recognize that the other person isn’t perfect, they express their remorse and intention to improve, and our relationship goes forward, and we care about each other knowing that we both have flaws, and scars from the pain that was caused.

The third kind of forgiveness in Jewish tradition is kappara. This is maybe the hardest to achieve, but the one we imagine we should be able to achieve. Kappara is wiping the slate clean. Not too long ago, I had the experience of telling someone very, very close to me that they had hurt me. It was very difficult for me. They responded with real remorse, and I felt the experience of kappara—I didn’t believe I could love them more, but I did. This is a rare and wonderful experience. It comes at times, but it is not the only way, so when it is not achievable, we look to other ways of forgiving that allow us to maintain relationships and move forward with our lives.

Finally, there is the question of who we forgive. In the New York Times article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s memoir, the headline says that she forgives him, and asks if we can forgive him. Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and renowned Nazi hunter, wrote a book called The Sunflower. In it, he recounts a story from his time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He was taken to the bedside of a gravely wounded and dying German soldier. The soldier confessed to him about the atrocities he had committed in murdering Jews. He wanted to confess it to a Jew and be forgiven before he died. In the end Wiesenthal said he left the room without saying anything.

The second half of the book is 50 responses that Wiesenthal solicited from theologians and thinkers from around the world, of multiple religions, as to whether he did the right thing. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our greatest 20th century rabbis, responded from Jewish tradition:

No one can forgive crimes committed against other people. It is therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished.

According to Jewish tradition, even God [God]self can only forgive sins committed against [Godself], not against [people].            (The Sunflower, p. 171)

By the same token, it is not up to any of us to forgive what Steve Jobs did to Lisa Brennan-Jobs. She is the only one who can forgive him for that. We have enough to do to work on forgiveness—even if that work is to decide whether it is even possible for us to forgive—without imagining that it’s our decision to forgive or not forgive those who have harmed others.

We come here together for Yom Kippur, and we ask God to forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. It isn’t easy to be here for this long day. It isn’t easy to think about what we’ve done wrong. I expect, though, that the prospect of asking for forgiveness from each other, or of telling people they have hurt us, is harder for many of us than going through that process with God, in whatever way we understand that word God.

We are here together so we can gather strength from each other. It’s not too late. Who do you still need to talk to? The gates of repentance are open. With whom will you make amends this year? May we mend the relationships that can be mended with courage, love, and hope. Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—May you be sealed for a good year to come.