Every night before we go to sleep, Jewish liturgy offers us the opportunity to forgive. The Bedtime Shema begins:
“Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me—whether against my body, against my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether it was done accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion.” When I recite these words, lying in my bed, I feel the tension in my shoulders relax and the stiffness of my heart soften. I forgive the person who rudely took the table I was trying to get at the coffee shop. I forgive my partner for not doing all the dishes. I forgive my brother for picking a fight.
This model of radical forgiveness is quite different from teshuvah, the standard form of reconciliation that we often think of in Jewish tradition. Teshuvah includes asking for forgiveness and promising to never commit the same wrong again. In contrast, this section of the Bedtime Shema offers forgiveness without any action by those who have committed the wrong. I forgive without receiving an apology.
By engaging in this spiritual practice of forgiveness, I am also trying to cultivate compassion. The woman who got the table had two young children with her. My partner had more work to do than usual. My brother was stressed about his future. In these cases, holding a grudge reinforces the pain of that moment and draws it through the present and into the future. I want to be as free of this pain as possible.
This morning, I had this approach to forgiveness challenged. I attended a session at the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a center for secular Jewish culture and social justice, called, “Perspectives on Non-Violent Solutions to the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict.” One of the speakers, Fadi Quran, asked us to engage in a thought exercise. He bravely asked this room of American Jews to imagine that all residents of the land found themselves in heaven and had to create a solution for the land, knowing that we would return to Earth not knowing if we would come back as Israelis or Palestinians.
I simultaneously felt my defenses rise and my heart break open. I was floored by the invitation for mutual compassion. I felt sputtering resistance rise in my head, preparing to say, “But! But! But!” I felt skeptical of this theological framework that felt foreign to my Jewish understanding of the afterlife. And then I remembered the Bedtime Shema.
The liturgy continues, “whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion, whether in this gilgul or another gilgul.” Gilgul literally means “cycle” in Hebrew and was used by the kabbalists to represent the concept that souls move from one body to another across lifetimes. Which body the soul attaches to depends, in part, on the specific work that the particular soul needs to do in the world. My resistance fell. My eyes watered. How would we approach the Israeli/Palestinian conflict if there was an equal chance of our soul attaching to a Palestinian or an Israeli in the next gilgul?
I have long believed that the futures of Israelis and Palestinians are deeply dependent on each other, but this is new. This blurred the very lines of difference I had imagined. What if all Jews, all Palestinians, all Israelis, all politicians, approached the conflict this way? Would the unknown fate of our souls compel us to reach a solution that truly reflected a just peace for all? Or would we cling to solutions that privileged our attachment to our current gilgul and our temporary earthly identities? What if the thing that I believe grants me safety in this gilgul becomes the thing that makes me suffer in the next?
I am not sure I can do this. The idea of clinging less tightly to this gilgul as an American Jew, this identity and its assumed political interests—letting go of these things that feel so real and permanent is frightening and unsettling. How do we think about self-interest if the “self” is not constant?
I believe that this is the spiritual work set before us. Cultivating compassion. Opening to forgiveness. Accepting the limitations of our awareness. I pray that no matter which body my soul attaches to next, it will be a body that can enjoy freedom, safety, dignity, and justice. May my compassion grow for all those who live in the land, who live in fear, who live with violence and with threat. In this gilgul or the next, may we all know compassion. May we all forgive.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.