I once heard a story, about a pious old man who skipped services before the Jewish New Year to sit down and make a list of everything which had caused him pain that year. Before participating in the holiday’s requirement of asking forgiveness for all he had done wrong, it seems he felt the need first to sit down with God and inform The Eternal of all the things God should be apologetic for. Natural disasters, acts of terror, financial downturns and tragic personal moments all made his list. As he went on, we are told that God only sat there with him, patiently listening.
I remember, years ago as a rabbinic student, transforming the story into a lesson about how God heard and accepted the man’s anger. However, I think back on this fictional Jewish man now and worry about him – that he carried so much pain and so much anger. While I still believe that it’s okay with God if we are angry, sad, disappointed or even broken – I’ve come to realize that those are not places where stories end. Rather, it is from those moments that the stories of our lives begin.
In a book on overcoming life’s disappointments, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes,
Instead of giving us a friendly world that would never challenge and therefore never make us strong, God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience.
Yes – naming our pain is a significant step in dealing with it. But it’s only a first step. If we have any hope of changing our circumstances and experiences – we must break from past struggles to move past them. Once we make a note of all the wrongs that either God or others have done to us, we must find a way to move past them. How we react is the most important part.
Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer writes,
Moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, (they enable us) to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.
This is an important lesson for all times, and for every age. Just this past weekend, I was privileged to help offer insight during a presentation for parents of 6th to 8th-grade girls on how prayer and mindfulness can assist in creating a resilient spirit in young women. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from disappointments, is an inherited part of the Jewish spirit. But we still need to cultivate it. We have to continuously work at it because let’s be honest – it’s hard to do. When we feel wronged, it’s hard to think of anything else.
To succeed in this transformative work of cultivating resilience and preparing for a better future, we must walk away from the anger that holds us captive. Like the pious man in my story – yes, we want to point out when we’ve been wronged. We want to recognize it; we may long for others to acknowledge it. But at some point, that needs to stop. We need to put the list down if we hope to march forward. Rabbi Kushner writes,
Too many people refuse to get over their anger, sometimes because remaining angry is their way of insisting that they were right, and the other party was wrong, sometimes because the only power they feel they have over the one who hurt them is their refusal to get over being angry. But in almost every case, nursing the grudge does more harm to the person holding it than it does to the target of the anger. It has been compared to swallowing poison in order to make someone else sick.
Letting go of anger does not mean you are giving up or somehow legitimizing the wrong that was done. However, it does say that you accept it. You stop fighting reality and start living in it. Many times it’s the only part we have control over. And it’s from this place of resilience that we can hope to move forward, to bounce back, to change, to grow, to thrive. Learn to ‘let go’ of the hurt and the pain, to accept our reality, and to search our souls from a place of truth and hope – for this is the path that can eventually lead to resilience and happiness.