Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Remembrance of Injustices Past - Good or Bad?

The other day someone was kind of enough to remind me of how I had wronged him years ago – a decade ago, in fact.

I apologized long ago.
I did my best to right the wrong.
I committed myself, verbally and through actions, to never repeat the error.
But, evidently, that wasn’t enough; teshuvah may cause Gd to erase sins, but we human beings never forget being wronged.

Lest I come across as self-righteous, I’ll cop to being the same way – I don't think I brood over sins against me, but I don’t think I ever really forget being wronged, either.

I needed all of thirty seconds just now to come up with a short list of injustices committed against me in childhood:

• A parental accusation that I had stolen a friend’s inherited ornamental tallis clips, when I came home with them one Shabbos afternoon. I was eight years old, scared stiff, but I knew he had told me to take them.

• A Spelling Bee moderator who mispronounced a word, causing me to misspell it. She said ‘legislature’ but she meant ‘legislator’. I was in 4th grade at the time, too timid to call her on it but angry enough to remember it vividly almost thirty years later. I could tell you her name, what she was wearing, everything.

• A high school Social Studies teacher who accused me of copying my paper on “The Good Earth” because it was so good. I had simply followed her model for essay-writing (a very good model, by the way), but I ended up dragging in my English composition instructor as a witness to my abilities, and the ribbon from my Canon Typestar 7 as proof of my trial-and-error process, before she dropped her complaint against me.

And the list goes on.

Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. As Jews, we institutionalize both forgiveness and remembrance of injustices past.

Sure, we insist that people should forgive each other, but we never forget all of the injustices carried out by others – indeed, many of them become holidays and/or fast days, depending on how they turned out.

And we never forget the wrongs that we have committed, either.

As individuals, we are taught that even if we apologize to the injured parties and even if we pray for forgiveness on the Yamim Noraim (Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur), we are still obligated to repeat that request from Gd for forgiveness for years thereafter.

And as a nation, much of the time we dedicate to mourning injustices committed against us is actually spent in remembering the sins we committed to deserve those injustices. (Think קינות of Tisha b'Av.)

That guilt over what we have done has certainly affected me, too; I can come up with a much longer list of injustices I’ve committed against others, but that ain’t going on this blog.

By logic’s lights, this seems unhealthy, harboring heaps of injustice in our minds.

Dragging around guilt over our own wrongdoings makes it easy to excuse our failures – “this is who I am, it’s who I’ve always been.” (אל תהי רשע בפני עצמך!)

And toting around anger over what they’ve done to you, well, that’s just a recipe for disaster on so many levels.

So why does Judaism place such a consistent emphasis on it? Does the value (contrition, presumably) really outweigh the potential cost (stress, anger, low self-esteem)?



  1. So you have a history of quality writing. . .

  2. No, dear. Not a Jewish thing. You won't like this, but it's an ego thing. I was just going to write about ego (like the Muhammad Ali kind) when I read that blurb on Steve Harvey, and off to the races I had to go.

    But I'm getting to it. Probably next on the list, but who knows when that's going to be.

    You're not narcissistic, though, and you don't have too much ego, not to worry. It's a very human ordeal, coping with insults.

    We like to say these insults build character, those who are truly insulted with very real insults on a regular basis. A relabel, sure.

    Yours stand out, so you actually question them! Once you get it, this stuff, you're home free. No more grudges. Poof!

    You have to leave this post up so I can link to it, quote from it, etc. It's PERFECT!

  3. MoI
    Thanks - and congratulations on the new site!

    Thanks very much. I was fairly certain it was not a Jewish thing - most traits we label "Jewish" for their Jewish nuances are really cross-cultural. Cf My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I look forward to your remarks...

  4. Oh, and it doesn't bother me at all to say it's an ego thing. I see in ego a valuable defense mechanism.

  5. Oy, I have spent many years trying to learn how to let go of wrongs committed and wrongs done.

    I think that there is value in spending time exploring and learning about ourselves. But the hard part is trying to find the balance.