“Head of a Man” by Anonymous (Greece circa 320 BCE)

The Long Road to Forgiveness

This past May was the 50th yahrzeit of my late father, Samuel Shapiro. He was 43 when he died and I was 12. I did not have much of a relationship with him and as a feminist have harbored so much anger about who he was. But with Yom Kippur upon us, I find myself revisiting my journey to forgiveness. 

The author and her parents, from childhood.
Courtesy of the author

My dad was murdered in 1973 just weeks before many milestones: my brother Allan’s wedding (which occurred during shiva) , my sister Donna and my Bat Mitzvah, and my other brother Ricky’s high school graduation.   

In the months preceding my dad’s 50th yahrzeit I was overwhelmed: Where did the years go? Why am I still traumatized? Why am I not at peace? Why do some people find it easy to forgive when inside I still feel twelve? In my research, I have discovered there might be good reason.

 I set about understanding my feelings by spending time talking to family members, friends, and rabbis. I read Jewish and secular texts about forgiveness and embraced a podcast called the Forgiveness Project. 

My father was a public figure in Baltimore, a politician who owned businesses and property. He also was not home a lot. I recall a statistic that a dad of his generation spent about 11 minutes a day with his children. After he died (at the hands of former employees who had been fired) I learned he was having an affair with his secretary. It turns out a number of my current friends’ parents also had affairs. Usually it was the father, but occasionally the mother. 

But, because my father was a public figure, the murder trial made headlines, headlines which caused me shame for decades. My father’s personal life was on display in the newspaper and family and friends learned about him at the same time I did. For years, I felt ashamed not to have a father, I never talked about not having a dad or what happened to him. I also felt angry at him but that is the gift of 50 years. It is time to get over my anger. Having noted my anger at my dad, I feel like the white elephant asks, what about anger at the men who killed him? While some people have the ability to forgive such acts, I am not there. Only one went to prison while the other plea bargained his way out of it. Seven years ago the one in prison died. That was a relief. 

The podcasts in the Forgiveness Project are amazing. People are interviewed who have been through horrendous experiences and they have found ways to forgive along withpeople who have done horrible things and changed their ways. In addition to these interviews, the website is filled with wisdom. Here are some things I learned:

  1. Shame is defined as  when wrongdoing is found out–there is public disgrace
  1. Shame associated with trauma prevents trauma from washing away
  1. Forgiveness allows one to detach from trauma 
  1. Forgiveness—letting go of bitterness and anger—gives one freedom of mind and heart
  1. What does one hold onto when they do not forgive? A story– is it true? Is it a feeling?
  1. Hurt people, hurt people. As I learned in my Mussar studies, we all have a burden and when we are hurt it is helpful to recognize that the person who hurt us is operating from their own burden. 

The​ ​Talmud​ ​describes​ ​the​ ​importance​ ​of​ ​forgiveness​ ​as a​ ​prerequisite​ ​for​ ​the​ ​atonement​ ​of​ ​Yom​ ​Kippur.​ ​For​ ​sins​ ​between​ ​people​ ​and God,​ ​the observance of Yom​ ​Kippur​ ​brings about​ ​forgiveness.​ ​However,​ ​Yom​ ​Kippur​ ​does​ ​not bring​ ​atonement​ ​for​ ​interpersonal​ ​sins,​ ​as​ ​long​ ​as​ ​the​ ​aggrieved​ ​party has​ ​not​ ​forgiven.​ Does this mean that I was supposed to forgive my father for not showing up? Since I never have, was I not “doing” Yom Kippur right? How many of us have unfinished business after Yom Kippur? 

In his terrific and thorough Apologies​ ​and​  the ​Afterlife:​ ​Can​ ​The​ ​Dead​ ​Grant​ ​Forgiveness? Rabbi​ ​Ariel​ ​Rackovsky gives an overview of Jewish sources on Forgiveness.  He quotes the​ ​philosopher​ ​Moshe​ ​Halbertal: “The​ ​Talmud​ ​develops​ ​this​ ​requirement​ ​for​ ​human​ ​forgiveness​ ​into​ ​a​ ​full-fledged legal​ ​institution.​ ​First,​ ​the​ ​request​ ​for​ ​forgiveness​ ​must​ ​be​ ​public:​ ​”R.​ ​Chisda​ ​said that​ ​he​ ​must​ ​placate​ ​his​ ​fellow​ ​before​ ​three​ ​lines​ ​of​ ​three​ ​people.”​ ​The​ ​clear​ ​intent​ ​is​ ​to​ ​make​ ​the​ ​request for​ ​forgiveness​ ​a​ ​social​ ​fact.​ ​A​ ​single,​ ​casual​ ​encounter​ ​involving​ ​only​ ​the​ ​injurer and​ ​the​ ​injured​ ​will​ ​not​ ​suffice.​ ​The​ ​injurer​ ​also does​ ​not​ ​become​ ​a​ ​permanent​ ​hostage​ ​to​ ​the​ ​injured​ ​party: “R.​ ​Yosi​ ​bar​ ​Chanina​ ​said,​ ​‘whoever​ ​seeks​ ​forgiveness​ ​from​ ​his​ ​friend​ ​should​ ​not​ ​seek it​ ​more​ ​than​ ​three​ ​times.”

Rackowsky goes on to explain that it is also made clear ​that​ ​when​ ​a​ ​person who​ ​is​ ​wronged​ ​passes​ ​away,​ ​a​ ​forgiveness​ ​ritual​ ​must​ ​be observed.​ ​​ Rashi quotes the Bavli, and says a person who needs to apologize to one who has passed away must take a minyan to the cemetery to witness the deceased being asked for forgiveness. Yehuda​ ​Aryeh​ ​Leib​ ​Alter,​​ differs.​ ​​He says that  ​once​ ​a person​ ​dies,​ ​he​ ​or​ ​she​ ​lives​ ​in​ ​a​ ​world​ ​of​ ​truth,​ ​free​ ​of​ ​the​ ​earthly​ ​bonds​ ​of drama​ ​and​ ​jealousy​ ​and​ ​entirely​ ​above​ ​petty​ ​worldly​ ​concerns;​ ​for​ ​such​ ​a person,​ ​who​ ​sees​ ​the​ ​truth,​ ​forgiveness​ ​is​ ​granted​ ​with​ ​no hesitation.

Rackowsky shares that asking​ ​forgiveness​ ​by​ ​someone’s​ ​grave​ ​is​ ​not​ ​to​ ​set things​ ​right​ ​with​ ​the​ ​dead.​ It’s​ ​to​ ​set​ ​things​ ​right​ ​with​ ​​ ​the​ ​living.  In Sanhedrin 104a we learn that a child can bring merit to a deceased parent, even if a parent did not do tshuvah at the end of his or her life.

All of the discussions and learning made me think deeply about my father from different perspectives.  I realized that all of this time I expected him to be a perfect father and I have been disappointed for 50 years that he was not. But of course he was not perfect. No one is perfect, and while that might sound like not a big insight, for me it was everything. 

My dad cared deeply about Baltimore City. He wanted to make it a better place. He also had a sense of humor, using stunts to grab attention and make a point. He ran for mayor, for congress- never to win but to get his opinions in the newspaper, on tv on the radio. When our friends moved to Baltimore county after the riots in the 60s, we never moved. My father wanted us in public schools in Baltimore City. He worked hard so while he was not home and did not seem so committed to his family, he did support us financially. 

My dad’s friendships were admirable. One of my dad’s very good friends was a lawyer, Leonard Kerpleman who successfully argued the landmark  Madalyn Murray O’Hair Supreme Court case in 1963 that led to a ban on state-supported prayer in public schools. After my dad died, I did not see Leonard but read about  his work from time to time, and then nearly 30 years ago I saw him at Klezkamp. I went up to him and introduced myself and we both broke out in sobs. I spent time talking with Leonard about my dad during those days together. A few months later he sent me a letter and it described the good ways he thought I was like my dad. 

I never thought of myself as being like my dad. I look like my mom’s side of the family, consider my personality traits to favor my mom’s side. And of course I was always closer to my mom. But when I think more deeply about my dad, a very principled person,  humorous, passionate about his work, I see similarities. There may even be more.

So, Daddy, after 50 years, I forgive you and more importantly, I hope you will forgive me for holding onto one part of my story of you. If Rav​ ​Yehuda​ ​Aryeh​ ​Leib​ ​Alter was right, your pure soul in the afterlife has already forgiven me. Indeed you were a complex person who did the best you could given who you were. 

This Yom Kippur, I really believe that.

Mindy Shapiro is an artist and former Jewish communal professional who was also the first women’s studies major at the University of Maryland graduating in 1982.