“Holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” That quote has been attributed to Buddha, St. Augustine, and Nelson Mandela. The axiom begs the question, “How do we let go of resentment?” Torah suggests that rituals can help. Still, reconciliation requires the engagement of two parties. What if only one is willing to try?
In Parshat Chukat, when people become impure, they are separated from the community. For example, contact with a dead person is one way of becoming spiritually tainted, as if the living person is a bit deadened. To restore that person to the community, another person sprinkles the waters of lustration on them, a spiritual cleansing through the physicality of splashing water. Notice the relational properties of the process. The corporeal act of touching the dead has spiritual implications. The physicality of washing removed the spiritual impurity. However, it takes two to restore a person to the community, pure and impure, and both willing participants.
This Parshat challenged me to reconcile with someone who has caused me pain. Here’s how I made that connection. When angered, I sometimes write off my foe as if creating a virtual death for that person. Don’t we sometimes say of an enemy, “That person is dead to me?” They are impure in our worldview.
Ideally, forgiveness is the highest resolution of personal conflict, which can lead you to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. By reconnecting and repairing a relationship, we restore the humanity and soul of the other person in our view. Yet, I find it hard to forgive people whose actions have caused pain to me and those I love. Having a ritual seems an integral part of restoring a relationship. Without waters of lustration, I’ve discovered other potential rituals. Simply meeting for coffee or a drink is such a ritual. The getting-together and sharing of food works to overcome my resentment.
Recently, while attending a Zoom Shabbat service, I saw a person who had once been a friend and later became my antagonist. We are both rabbis, running in similar cohorts.
In the past year, I thought to reach out to bring closure to my ill feelings. I saw the person passing me at a meeting, and I said hello. Their response was an awkward head gesture as if I had startled them from a nap. Later, I tried again. I sent an email asking to begin a conversation and received no reply. I gave up.
Seeing this person on my computer screen put a knot in my stomach. Having been rebuffed, the hurt doubled. No tangible ritual for reconciliation came to mind. I thought a virtual sprinkling of “the waters of lustration” would work. I attempted to focus my energy on that person in their Zoom box, summoning and “sprinkling” my sense of decency, compassion, and amnesty. The virtual “sprinkling” did not work.
Nonetheless, I learned (perhaps relearned) valuable lessons. Holding a grudge may be poisonous, but there is not always an antidote. Other faith traditions teach us to love unconditionally, turn the other cheek, and offer forgiveness. Nelson Mandela spoke of such reconciliation. Martin Luther King preached that loving your oppressor was fundamental to our humanity.
Judaism takes a middle ground between resentment and release. Our tradition teaches that physical engagement and rituals are critical steps. Yet, a willing partner is also essential. The other person must show up and be ready to receive your offer of reconciliation and be re-ensouled in your thinking.
I no longer anticipate reconciling with this Rabbi who offended me. But knowing that I tried has lessened the intensity of my resentment. Seeing their face on my computer screen reminded me that prior attempts to engage them added to my spiritual strength. Although rebuffed in my attempt at reconciliation, I seized an opportunity to improve my character. With that understanding, I discovered that a grudge could be diminished if we attend to our well-being with spiritual cleansing, even if no one else is willing to try.