For me, forgiveness was always difficult. I learned about forgiveness from the prayers on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During that service, we read, repeatedly, that G‑d forgives us. He absolves us of our sins. This taught me that to forgive is G‑dly. But if forgiveness meant absolution, I simply couldn’t do it.

Living well was always a goal, but I was raised in a situation where I was seen as the cause of all problems. None of my decisions were good enough. For example, I became a teacher and writer, instead of the musician that was expected of me. Even when I was past retirement, I was told that the biggest mistake of my life was that I had not turned my love of music into a career. This constant pressure actually turned music into a vehicle of shame, which caused me to avoid it.

As you can imagine, I grew up with a poor self-image that resulted in countless difficulties over the years. Both Torah classes and therapists told me I needed to forgive, and that by forgiving others, we release ourselves from pain. But no one gave me a good definition of forgiveness or an explanation of how to accomplish it.

I couldn’t seem to get past the anger generated by memories of hostile and abusive events. Years passed, but I still found myself mulling over these injustices.

I needed to forgive, but the people who had wronged me had not paid in any way for the hurt I felt.

Recently I realized that my problem was my understanding of what forgiveness is. In my mind, it was conflated with absolution or pardon.

The English word “forgiveness” has many meanings, including pardon, excuse, absolution, mercy, clemency and atonement. Each of these has a specific definition. And all except atonement mean the washing away of the issue for which forgiveness is given.

A criminal is pardoned: his criminal record is erased. You skip class but bring a note from home: your absence is excused—no longer counts in the “bad kids” book. “Absolution” means sins are wiped away; mercy and clemency are when someone is granted a lighter penalty than their wrongdoing deserves.

Atonement, on the other hand, is taking responsibility for one’s wrongdoing: paying reparations, removing graffiti one spray-painted on a wall, for example, and doing the soul-searching that will result in improved behavior in the future.

On Yom Kippur, after we atone, we pray for forgiveness. But what G‑d gives us is absolution. Our sins are washed away.

So, how was I supposed to forgive someone when I knew they would not pay for my pain (at least in this world)? My innate desire for justice precluded this. I wanted people to pay. I did not want them to be absolved of consequences, obligations or penalties.

But wanting people who hurt me to suffer is akin to carrying a grudge or even wanting revenge. The Torah teaches us: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the L‑rd” (Leviticus 19:18). This confusion kept me from forgiving and kept me angry.

Then, the other morning, this line from the morning prayers jumped out at me: “The soul that you breathed into me is pure.”

Chassidut teaches us that we have two souls: the nefesh ha-behamit, or animal soul—the part of us rooted in the physicality of this world, that gets hungry—and the nefesh ha-elokit, the heavenly soul that desires a strong connection with G‑d. The G‑dly soul tells us not to steal, to keep kosher and to be kind to others.

We all have two souls: me, my dysfunctional family members and the neighbors mentioned in Leviticus. The wrongs we do come from our animal souls; heavenly souls do not do hurtful things.

The first level of forgiveness is that we don’t wish the person any harm and we even pray for their well-being. At this basic level of forgiveness, we might still be upset, feel hurt or even angry. Yet we find it within ourselves not to hope for the person’s downfall and not feel the need for revenge.

As soon as I truly understood that all others—neighbors and enemies alike—also have G‑dly souls worthy of love, regardless of what their animal souls do, forgiveness became easier.

The verse in Leviticus does not say I have to like what others did. Neither does it mean that I must maintain a relationship with them. Judaism never says we need to be around people who hurt us.

I had never been able to reach this basic level of forgiveness of which the Rebbe wrote. But as soon as I realized that hurtful actions stem from animal souls, not G‑dly souls, forgiveness was not only possible, it was almost automatic. I simply couldn’t want revenge on a G‑dly soul!

My hurt didn’t go away, but suddenly, it was my personal pain, separate from my feelings towards the people who had hurt me. Praying for the well-being of these people became easy.

But what about my desire for justice?

G‑d ends Leviticus 19:18 with the words: “I am the L‑rd.” He is telling us that our job is to love the heavenly souls of the people around us. G‑d will do the G‑dly thing: judge the animal souls and mete out any needed punishment.

In this framework, forgiving or setting down my burdens of hurt became simple. My concerns about forgiveness were because of my desire for retribution or justice. Now I understand that absolution is up to G‑d.

Now, when bad memories flit through my mind, I push them away: G‑d is in charge. He will take care of retribution or absolution. My path is living well.

As a result of my new understanding, my relationship to music changed. My electronic keyboard, which was a gift from my mother, had sat for years untouched. The other night I opened it. For the first time in years, I truly enjoyed playing and started to relearn a favorite piece of music. I am confident that other doors that I have either shut or ignored will start to open.

Truly forgiving—being able to pray for the wellbeing of people who have hurt me and knowing G‑d is in control—has let me set down a tremendous weight. It has freed me from the burden of my past.