As promised, that great teaching, from the Sayings of the Fathers, on anger and forgiveness.
One thing my father had great difficulty with was forgiving. I can’t recall a single instance when he ever forgave anyone. He never forgave himself, first and foremost, though he also defended himself relentlessly at all times. A strange combination, but unfortunately not an uncommon one.
Here is what Sayings of the Fathers’ has to say about anger and forgiveness, and the four kinds of dispositions.
Once you see it laid out this way, it’s very hard to see it much differently. The type who is slow to anger, quick to forgive is also translated as “righteous” and “saintly”, the root of the word chasid being kind, benevolent, gracious. The fourth type, quick to anger, slow to forgive, is our friend Rah-shah — the bad one.
It is clearly best to be slow to anger, for anger helps nobody solve anything, though it may get you momentarily out of the doldrums from time to time (but not as well as a good laugh, or emotions like hope and a desire to help), and one can argue that injustice should make you angry, and mobilize you to fight it. Anger at injustice certainly has its place. Between people, however, it is best to be slow to anger. If one is slow to anger but also slow to forgive: your gain is offset by your loss.
Of course, the alternative posed against anger in this translation is not forgiveness, but a willingness to be appeased. לרצות means appease, placate, to try to please. In this scenario the person who has angered you has sought your forgiveness, tried to make amends.
This is significant, since it is difficult for most people to forgive someone who accepts no part in having made you angry. Someone who refuses to accept a sincere apology, a real attempt to make peace, is, indeed, as my grandmother Yetta used to say, not a bit nice.
This section of Pirkey Avot strikes me as a bit of real wisdom, hidden in the back of a prayer book that has always struck me as an exercise in blind faith and wishful thinking. At that memorial service yesterday we read responsively, in words meant to console the mourners, that God always helps the helpless, that God is all-forgiving, that God is ever kind and merciful, that God will never abandon those in need, that God rewards the just, that God lifts up and embraces all who call to Him.
I whispered to a friend, like the Rah-shah, that I thought some of this sarcasm was a bit over the top. She had the good sense not to snicker, snort or hiss, though I don’t think she necessarily disagreed with me. I read this, which I loved and photographed:
This same, gracious, quick to forgive Eternal One who told his Chosen People that He was a vengeful and jealous God who would force parents who disobeyed Him to eat the flesh of their children, torture their descendants for generations, visiting the sins of the parents on their children’s children, yea, upon their children’s children’s great-grandchildren. Of course, that was only God speaking in anger.
I thought about my father so deeply hurt he could not find a way to forgive a life that could brutalize him from the time he was a defenseless baby.
I thought briefly of several formerly close friends of mine I can find no reason to forgive, (not one of whom ever tried to apologize, now that I think of it) even though I believe that forgiveness is one of the great blessings of life and the best attitude to have in most situations.
And then, since this was a memorial service for a Jewish woman who during her almost century-long life always went overboard serving a lot of food, I went over to the buffet table to see what my next course might be.