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Dear Estranged Family: The Ability to Forgive Never Expires

Dear Estranged Family: The Ability to Forgive Never Expires

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Jasmin* was a friend and roommate of mine at the midrasha (women’s center for Jewish learning) in Israel where we both learned some years ago.

Those times we sat on the bench overlooking the valley and watched the sun set, or walked the rocky hills, we often spoke about our backgrounds andShe left home and never looked back the families we left behind in the United States. Jasmin shared with me that she hadn’t had a relationship with her parents and siblings for many years. Major differences in religious beliefs and values between her parents caused a lot of tension as she was growing up, leading to serious identity crises among the children. Being the oldest, she left home first and never looked back. Eventually, her non-Jewish father and Jewish mother divorced.

We discussed issues of intense bitterness, anger and guilt, but also of forgiveness, responsibility and letting go. Back then, Jasmin could barely refer to her mother as such and had only intensely distasteful memories from the first 18 years of her life.

After some challenging but life-changing months in the midrasha, Jasmin met a like-minded single baal teshuva (“returnee to Judaism”) who was learning at the nearby yeshivah. After they married and moved to one of Israel’s major cities, we continued to be in contact intermittently. Jasmin seems happy in her marriage. She told me she volunteers at a hospice ward and feels appreciative for the good in her life.

Recently, she wrote me the words below, including a letter she composed to her family, shared with permission. What an amazing transformation from the friend I knew in the past! My response to her letter follows.


Dear Rivka,

As you know, I have had a non-existent relationship with my family for ages. Now my mother is into her senior years and discovered she has a serious illness. She expresses regret and asks forgiveness. How should I answer her? My siblings, who also suffered from our parents’ anger and neglect, seem shocked and betrayed that I would initiate a reconciliation. But I know it’s the right thing to do. These are the thoughts I would like to express, to share what I have learned about living and forgiving.

Dear Parents and Siblings,

Honestly, I have a lot of difficult memories from the past. Several negative episodes colored my memories of the past for many years, obscuring all else. But I have learned that everyone remembers things differently. Perhaps all of you remember my mistakes and misbehaviors that I have forgotten. That was long ago. Many years have passed since the days of our youth, and we’ve forged each our own path.

Life experiences have brought me further than those memories, have removed dark layers of moldy husks. I know what it is to sit beside someone in the final months and weeks of their life. Living in Israel, I know what it means to see a young, healthy person at a wedding and a few weeks later, see their photo in the news because they are no longer on this earth. To have stood at the bus stop where another young person was later murdered. To realize that every trip to Jerusalem carries a small but definite risk of being attacked by a terrorist who would not hesitate to remove me from this earth, too. These experiences, this reality, have a way of peeling away the petty shells of existence and leaving the core essence of life. Life is so precious and so fragile. In the end, when one looks back, what matters? Not that I was right every time. Not that I didn’tEveryone remembers things differently make mistakes. What matters is the good I did for other people. To realize that, after 120 years, hopefully, I will have done my best to leave this world a better place than when I arrived, and that others, especially all of you, will remember me for good.

And yet, I am also a human being, with my faults and failings. The difficult memories have faded but haven’t been erased. So it is a challenge to write these words. But I learned the importance of forgiving others from the book Tomer Devorah. That we should emulate the characteristics of G‑d, who constantly gives us life despite our misdeeds, as the line in Micah says: who forgives iniquity and overlooks transgression. So I make an effort to forgive, as much as my heart will let me, to accept an apology at face value and to continue to move forward.

Among my greatest values in life is shalom, peace. Peace within the family, peace between neighbors (in my case, both those in the apartments above and below us . . . and perhaps one day, also our stone-throwing neighbors across the valley).

The silver lining to our broken family past is that others have benefited from my separation and loneliness. The value of these difficult experiences is that I have learned from them: I am much more aware of the importance of peace in my own home. I pray every day that my home will always be a place of unity and love. I do my utmost to facilitate harmony among everyone in the family. And that I perhaps contribute to peace among us, that I helped bring individuals closer together, is one of my greatest satisfactions.

As the decades pass so quickly, one gains a wider perspective on life. And having learned the values of Judaism, of gratitude and appreciation, I am now able to look back and understand with more clarity the good things we did receive from our parents. So thank you, dad and mom, for teaching us to be polite and have good manners, for teaching us not to waste food and to be careful with money, for giving us a belief in G‑d and the other important values we carry with us, whether or not we realize how much you influenced us.

And still, my dear sisters, when I attend weddings and watch the bride dance with her sisters, I wish so much that I had had the chance to dance at each of your weddings, and you at mine. All those years wasted by petty disagreements; how do they compare? I can’t change the past, but I realize how important it is to choose how I use each precious day.

And I am so grateful for every day of my life. I am grateful for my childhood, young-adult years, the good and bad memories together. All of these experiences have made me who I am today, and I have immense gratitude to all the people who have shaped my character and contributed to the person I have become.

As I cleaned for Passover this past spring and thought about how shiny clean I wanted my home to be, I hoped that the physical effort of removing the dark layers of grease and dirtI have immense gratitude to the people who have shaped my character would also strip away my past negative views and perspectives, and bring me closer to the truth. And when we entered the month of Elul and I hoped for forgiveness from those I wronged, I readily forgave each one and asked for your forgiveness as well. Now, as we enter the long and dark winter months, may the flame of renewed hope light our way and bring us closer to G‑d and to each other.

With only good thoughts and wishes to everyone,

Jasmin



To my cherished friend Jasmin,

Your letter taught me more than you realized! Thank you for showing me that we don’t have to be chained by our difficult memories, nor must they rule or ruin our lives. And for demonstrating that forgiveness is as much a gift to oneself as it is a benefit to those we forgive. And how amazing to see how our views change as we live and grow, leading us to a broader understanding of ourselves and our loved ones!

With love and gratitude,

Rivka

*Name changed.

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Malka Libe Brockton Ma January 29, 2017

Forgiveness My mother was told by father's parents no to marry him. She did he was the only one who said her mother could move in with them. For the first time I went to this beauty shop the hair dresser asked me if my father's name is Joe and told me they are very good friends they see each other a lot . As husband a when my mother was very ill did not take of her . I had to take over every thing.Worked very little my mother worked in a factory .When she passed on he sang and danced after her funeral .His sister decided to have in a nursing home near her I told her that I found one near me. She took over then begged me to take over I did not . Because of a lot things did not even attend his funeral .My daughter has a very serious illness all her life . Reply

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