Atonement and Forgiveness

Atonement and Forgiveness

Fall in the Gatineau Hills, 2008. By tsaiproject.

This week, when Jewish time has been flowing between the New Year 5781 and the sacrosanct Day of Atonement, I have asked a couple of people I know for forgiveness. It’s the time of year when this is required, for any wrong one has done to another. 

I can’t imagine anyone performing this duty with ease, which is doubtless one reason why these are called the Days of Awe. For my part, I can’t recall ever having done it at any time before this past week. Whether it’s easy or hard, 

till now,

I never did it.

So what’s different now? What made me do it this time round? Only that, this season, I felt the Drumbeat of Urgency. There was Something blocking my path and I did not feel as if I could get round it. 

The protocol for the Days of Awe has it that, before you can effectively pray to God for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, you must first square it with the persons you have injured. Your fellow mortals.

Until you’ve done that, don’t even send God a letter! The Lord won’t open it! God doesn’t want to hear from you, and will be disinclined to help you till you’ve made it good – or as good as you can – with the ones you hurt.

The odd thing was, I could literally feel it – the force of this protocol! Ordinarily, it’s not particularly rare for me to sense the Shekinah, the presence of God, in one way or another. Not this week. I felt like someone trying to get past the glass door behind which she sees the lights of a party to which she was not invited.

Sorry. Got to show

your invitation.

Got to show a real one!

Not that thing. 

It was worse than being snubbed socially by The Beautiful People. Not only are you not invited – but you know it!

So what happened after I asked the ones I had injured for forgiveness? One of the people, to whom I sent my spelled-out-in-some-detail regrets, responded so handsomely, so lovingly, that it actually felt as if the whole world had undergone extensive repairs. The other one, also a congregant, has not responded as yet.

The third injured party was the one I couldn’t find. That injury dates back to the first years after we’d both graduated from Barnard College. I hadn’t thought of the incident in years, or perhaps even considered it an injury at all. Only now did I get a sense of what my words might have meant to her!

We’d both majored in philosophy. She became a psychotherapist. I became … whatever I became. There was a time when, some years later, she happened to befriend the man who would turn out to become my first husband. When John told her that he hoped to marry her college friend Abigail, any bitterness she might have felt did not prevent her saying to him, “You couldn’t do better. She’s the best!”

John later reported to me that she expressed alarm after he’d boasted to her that, during all the months of courtship, we had never had a fight. In the realms of psychotherapy, I gather that’s not a good sign. Whatever the merits of psychoanalytic lore, those people do have experience. She’d been right to be alarmed. John and I couldn’t work out our differences and our marriage did not last.

Unrepaired injuries don’t go away. So I very much wanted to contact her again. However, I was not successful. She was not in the online Album of my college class. I looked through my calendar books but none contained her number. Whether or not she’s still in the Book of Life, at this point the injury I did her looks irreparable. I am sorry. Despite what I implied at the time, it was not her fault. It was mine. That said, it might be that I get some points for trying, since I sense that now, once more,

I can get

the Divine Presence

on the line.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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1 Response to Atonement and Forgiveness

  1. Tom Eggebeen says:

    A brilliant, moving, piece … thank you.

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