“Resentment is an acid that damages its container.”

The central concept of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our year, is forgiving: for G‑d to forgive us, and for us to forgive ourselves and others. In asking G‑d to excuse our flaws, we draw on two family metaphors; “Love us, as a parent is compassionate toward a child”; “Love us, like a husband who draws closer to his wife by remembering his infatuation with the bride of his youth.”

From my perspective as a family therapist, the greatest treasure in our Torah inheritance is the instruction to free ourselves of anger and resentment, especially in dealing with close relationships. Literally hundreds of sources in Jewish writings over the ages warn us that sustained anger is forbidden, destructive and ultimately irrational. The biblical injunction is found in Leviticus 19:17–19: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. . . . You shall not take revenge, and you shall not bear a grudge.”

Suddenly the relative dies, and the man’s love, long masked by a veneer of anger, erupts into awareness . . .The Talmud goes on to note that “anyone who foregoes revenge merits that G‑d forgives all of his sins.”1 It further advises2 that G‑d loves a person “who does not get angry . . . and who does not insist on his due measure.” Maimonides goes further,3 requiring a person to “wipe the wrong from his heart entirely, without remembering it at all.” A contemporary psychologist will paraphrase this as “The challenge of relinquishing anger presents an incredible opportunity for personal growth.”

Does this mean that we should be passive victims in the face of abuse? Absolutely not! The very same biblical portion cited above tells us that we must verbally confront someone who has wronged us, in order to avoid hating him in our heart. We must do so directly and emphatically, but without hatred and without destroying the relationship. Similarly, we have an obligation to protect ourselves and not put ourselves in a vulnerable position where the offense may be repeated. At the same time, we need to do so without speaking hostilely or taking an action that goes beyond self-protection, without vengeance, or withdrawing into a cold and judgmental contempt or prolonged silence.

Many counselors report a recurring tragic family scenario: Over the years, a man has maintained an angry distance from a relative (a parent, child or sibling). Suddenly the relative dies, and the man’s love, long masked by a veneer of anger, erupts into awareness, and the man is racked by regret and guilt. “How could I have wasted these years, when I could have . . . ?”

Traditional Jewish philosophy in general, and Yom Kippur in particular, offer us some protection from such tragedy. Torah says: 1) Do not believe that you cannot forgive . . . it is always your task to achieve forgiveness; 2) understand that anger and resentment are sustained by irrational thoughts . . . if you deeply examine your anger, you will identify and correct these cognitive distortions; 3) there is a negative force in the world that seeks to destroy closeness . . . that force is the source of those irrational thoughts; 4) in personal relationships, underneath anger there is hurt, fear and, most importantly, a need to love and be loved.

Consider using this High Holiday season to reach out to someone in a spirit of loving forgiveness. May it be that, in the merit of your doing so, G‑d chooses to reach out to us with the ultimate gift, bringing in the era of Moshiach.