By the time I emailed Avner, I wasn’t even sure he would respond. We hadn’t spoken in over a year, since a disastrous weekend the summer before I started college that had finally ended our complicated, years long, on again/off again relationship. But Yom Kippur was looming, and he was at the top of my list. Tradition demanded I give it a try.
By then I was a sophomore. Leaning against my dorm-issue twin bed, I had gone through the people in my life, noting every person with whom I had unresolved tension, lingering resentment, or just unspoken gratitude. This was my annual Yom Kippur list.
Growing up at an Orthodox Jewish day school, I always loved the serious holidays in a way that no one else did. As a kid I gravitated toward fast days, mussar talks, rituals of intensity. Yet while we were taught their laws, there seemed a general consensus among the community that the somber holidays were worth fulfilling to the letter, but not the spirit.
I was all about that spirit, and I resented that I was made to feel too embarrassed to cry for the Temple on Tisha B’Av, or that every Yom Kippur brought the same hurried, bashful requests for blanket forgiveness. I totally judged the other fourth-graders who would run up to me at recess, asking: Do you mochel me, do you mochel me, do you mochel me? Their requests for forgiveness were clearly meaningless.
Eventually I grew into a slightly less earnest, hopefully less obnoxious human, but the rituals of Yom Kippur still held a special place in my heart. It was like a free pass to address all that stuff that goes unspoken the rest of the year. Every fall, I would call and email my way down my list, apologizing for the invitations I had ignored or the snappy emails I had sent. I saw Yom Kippur as a way out of the messiness of human relationships; you call, apologize, and then, upon successful completion of the dance, the incident would be marked resolved. I was still wrapped up in the power of words, the security of the ritual that promised to make things right among men.
And so, when I emailed Avner, I was prepared. I had played this game before. Sure, he had done me wrong: After that weekend the previous year, I had tried to contact him for a few weeks, to no avail. He had vanished. I was 19, confused, hurt, and numbly left to accept that, clearly, he just didn’t think me worth his time. A month later he invited me to his wedding; apparently, he had been less single that summer than I had been led to believe. We hadn’t been in contact since. But this was all in the past. Short and brief, I apologized for my role in the relationship and asked him to ask me for forgiveness, too. I told him I was disappointed in the way things had ended. And then I waited for the ritual to play out, for him to ask and me to say yes and so, vindicated by the wisdom of tradition, I could finally stop being hurt.
To his credit, the reply was swift. A day later the email response came, with a sincere apology, both for what he had done and for not contacting me in the first place to apologize. He absolved me of any wrongdoing, dismissed my own apology. He told me I was young and had nothing to be sorry for. He tried to explain his behavior, insist it had nothing to do with me, heaped blame on himself, and asked for forgiveness, just as I had requested. Now all I needed to do was accept, let that last piece fall, and the ritual would be complete.
Except I couldn’t do it. Staring at my laptop, fingers hovering over the keyboard, the words just wouldn’t come. What he had done still hurt, still affected the cautious way I approached relationships in my life, still came back to me when I thought of his name or an email of his popped up in an unrelated search of my inbox. He was still hurting me. The ritual, which I had always gleefully taken as a chance to expunge my life of guilt, had met reality. I had overestimated the power of words, of the ritual, to do the work of emotional reckoning.
I felt like a kid again, embarrassingly crying in the corner because the Temple had been destroyed and now we couldn’t talk to God, while some uncomfortable camp counselor tried to comfort me. What was wrong with me? I had emailed him and asked for this very apology, and now, I couldn’t forgive him? Refusing to forgive someone felt too melodramatic, like some Victorian novel gone right. His crime was a common one, a human one. Just write the email. Move on.
But I still couldn’t find it within me to write the words: I forgive you. I didn’t. I was not yet ready to free him from me, this saga, and set him out into a world where he felt he had adequately served his time. But I also didn’t want him to know he remained unforgiven, that after all this time his actions still had that power over me.
As one of my friends put it, “This is what happens when Yom Kippur stops being formulaic and starts getting real.” I thought back to my other, earlier, emails. The ones I thought tradition demanded of me, the ones full of sincere apology but with no further plan. Had they, despite their detail, been formulaic as well? There is safety in ritual. When we ask for forgiveness each fall, we are not quite laying bare the vulnerabilities of our soul. Like many, I imagine, I hide behind Yom Kippur, the annual need to assess and forgive. I trust that people feel obligated to accept my apologies. Some cases were, of course, more difficult to discuss. Some of my apologies were perhaps thoughtless. I rarely thought about the consequences, the emotional fallout, of apologizing to a girl whose friendship I had dropped but which I had no interest in picking up again, or the roommate who still remembered an issue differently, when I was done rehashing the event and just wanted to apologize. There is responsibility that comes with approaching someone and trying to make things right. I thought I had understood that.
And now this email was waiting in my inbox. I was screwed.
His response, existent and profuse as it was, irked me as well. He had been so dismissive of my own apology that it felt patronizing. Sure, he was mostly at fault. I was much younger than him. At 24, I only now understand how large a difference of eight years can be. But I wasn’t completely a child. I knew what I was doing. If not in a court of law than in an all-knowing court of God, I knew I was not blameless. I wanted him to recognize my personhood, acknowledge my agency. I had done my share of wrong and also needed forgiveness.
I wandered campus for a few hours before finally returning to my laptop. For all these years, I had looked at forgiveness as a singular, isolated, final step in the process. The end of the road. But maybe it is just a first step. Granting forgiveness does not have to signal an inner emotional truth. Forgiveness can be a placeholder, a public statement more about where you are heading than a reflection of where you are. It is an ideal, like all of our Yom Kippur promises; a hope for the new year. When it comes to sins between men, confession is always best done in public. My formal forgiveness, though private, was more about changing Avner’s public status. It was a way for me to signal the community that a wrong has been righted, and he no longer needs to be held in contempt. Was I ready for his status to be changed? Yes, absolutely—this story was already too old for me.
I returned to my dorm room enlightened but still too bitter to let him off the hook. So, I told him I understood, turning my hesitation into a question. “And once you understand, how can you not forgive?” He wrote back something gentle and beautiful, picking up on my evasive language, and that was it. I never responded. What I had written was true. I did understand what he had done. It wasn’t nice, or fair, or kind. But he did not deserve to stay out of the Book of Life for it, or stay in my life any longer. Even if I wasn’t ready, I wanted to publicly free him from this blame, to let the world know I had moved on. I wanted to create my ideal world and grow into it.
You cannot control the timeline of when you heal. I don’t think a broken heart is really so different from a broken leg. I needed to heal on my own time, but I needed to de-tether myself from him first. That was the only way to make this about me and not him.
I don’t know when I finally forgave Avner, in a true, capable-of-writing-it way. Last week, making my new lists for the new year, I was listening to Lana Del Rey’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” An ode to Janis Joplin (which Cohen later regretted acknowledging), the song opens, “I remember you well from the Chelsea Hotel,” and proceeds with Cohen explaining the impact Joplin had on him from one night together, before he concludes, “that’s all; I don’t even think of you that often.”
That is one litmus test of true forgiveness. I no longer thought of Avner. I no longer worried about bumping into him on the street, and when a friend mentioned his name my body no longer tensed. I was finally over it.
My mistake had been in asking forgiveness before I was ready. But by reaching out to him, drawing from him that apology, I was able to start the walk down the path of forgiveness. And now, years later, I have already passed the end of the road. I remember him well, of course, from those blurry weird days of being a teenager and trying to understand how the world works. But that’s all. I don’t even think of him that often.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.