| Family First Feature |

Collecting the Feathers 

When someone hurts you in a way no words can undo, breaks your trust in a way that seems insurmountable, can you possibly get past it? Four women share how they forgave and let go

Making it Work

Chava

 

After having my third baby, I was ready to go back to work, but the last time I’d had a job was half a decade before, back when I was a newly married girl straight out of sem. I didn’t even know where to start.

I bumped into Leah when I was rumbling through the grocery store aisles. We went through the usual pleasantries. “How are you keeping busy?” she asked. I told her that actually, I was looking for a job.

“I have the perfect idea for you!” she said. “I work as the event coordinator for a nonprofit and I want to leave my job, but my contract is until after the big gala in June. But if you take over for me, it’s perfect. They won’t be left hanging and you’ll have work!”

I mulled it over for a minute. “Why are you leaving?”

“The hours don’t work for my family anymore.” She pushed her cart farther down the aisle. “Think about it!” she called over her shoulder.

The opportunity seemed G-d sent. That night, I called Leah and spoke to her at length — grilling her about the job requirements, work environment, and challenging responsibilities. Then Leah put me in touch with her bosses. On her strong recommendation, they hired me.

For the first week, it was the dream job Leah had described — good hours, decent pay, manageable work. Then I started interacting with the big boss more, and he was tough.

He’d approve an order only to shout at me for wasting money when the invoice arrived. He’d ignore my repeated requests for more information, then call me after hours to ask why the projects weren’t done.

I was coming home from work exhausted, too drained to read a book to my little ones or chat about their day. No one warns you that fighting a battle of wits is so tiring. Or that it’s possible for a grown woman to cry that much. No wonder Leah left mid-contract.

Leah. I was tempted to ignore her whenever we’d meet at our kids’ car pool drop-off. I was livid. How could she push me to take a job she knew was so impossible? “How’s it going?” she would ask.

You know exactly how, I wanted to shout. You knew what this job was and sent me straight in. “Good, baruch Hashem,” I would say out loud. Then, “I need to run.”

A month after I started the job, once I’d cried myself to sleep for three nights in a row, my husband put his foot down.

“I’m not letting you go back,” he told me. “This is not functional.”

I knew he was right, but I also couldn’t quit. How could I leave my coworkers right before the big day?

 

So I stuck it out for three more long, long weeks. I’d wake up, prepare the kids, send them off, leave myself. Then work, cry, work, come home. Be with the kids, answer work calls, defend myself to the boss, cry again. Sleep, repeat.

It was torture, but I got through the gala.

A few days after I quit, I got a call from an old classmate. “Hey, I applied to work at the nonprofit and heard that you used to work there — can you tell me about the place?” I asked if I could call her back, then hung up and dialed my rav.

“You have a responsibility to be honest,” he told me, so I called my classmate back and told her the full story. What I wish Leah would have done for me.

I held on to the resentment for many a long month, even once I’d left the job. Then, one night, I realized: I didn’t want to be a person who held grudges anymore. There were too many stories of people having yissurim, such as struggling to have kids or going through illness, because someone else was mad at them. It’s Hashem Who put me in that situation, I realized. Leah was just the shaliach.

Speaking with my rav was validating. He stressed that I have the right to have tainehs, but it would be in my best interest to move past them. Did Leah do the wrong thing? Yes. Is that my cheshbon? No. Obviously, this was something Hashem wanted me to go through.

Once I knew that, forgiveness wasn’t about her apologizing. It was about me coming to terms with Hashem’s personal plan for me.

So when I see Leah at car pool or in the grocery store, I smile and go over to talk for a bit. She has no idea how hard that is for me — but I know now that what she knows isn’t the point, what I know is.

 

Mother Knows Best

Yocheved

 

When my in-laws offered to host us after our first child was born, I was grateful. I knew my mother-in-law could be difficult — she’s the quintessential shvigger with an opinion about everything — but I was exhausted and only too glad to accept.

It only took a few days to regret my decision.

“The baby shouldn’t be nursing for so long,” she told me one day. The statement was followed by a whisper to my shver, which I’m sure she knew I’d hear. “New mothers these days — they have no idea what they’re doing.”

The next afternoon, my tichel “made me look too pale, sheifele.” And the morning after that, she wanted to know why my husband was late for shul. Didn’t I know that it was my job to stay up with the baby so his life wouldn’t be disturbed?

She repeatedly said things that were out of line, offered advice that was insulting, and asked questions that probed too deeply.

When my husband, seeing how hurt I was, asked her to soften her tone, she didn’t seem to understand. She bulldozed straight past our personal boundaries, and didn’t seem to notice — or care — if she hurt me during the process.

When my baby was just three weeks old, I couldn’t take it anymore, and we returned home, earlier than originally planned. (Which triggered more criticism — didn’t we know it was rude to leave early when you’re guests in someone’s home?)

I was resentful for a long time. I felt like my shvigger stole our rosy and exciting post-baby honeymoon period, turning it into a stressful and hurtful time.

My mother-in-law never apologized. She probably never even realized that her form of helping was hurtful. But the months passed, and Tishrei was approaching. I didn’t want to go into Yom Kippur mad at someone.

Forgiving her was a very conscious effort. I tried to be dan l’chaf zechus and look at her as a whole — a well-meaning but flawed person. I did a lot of self-talk and told myself things like, “It’s not her fault that she misses social cues” or, “I feel bad for her that she’s so oblivious sometimes.” And maybe I should have been wise enough to recognize that it would be a problem before we moved in.

I worked hard to see my mother-in-law as a person with blind spots rather than someone who deliberately wanted to cause me pain.

When the next Yom Tov came and we had no choice but to move in, I braced myself for the comments I knew would be coming. But I also allowed myself to hope that all the self-work I’d done would pay off.

And when my mother-in-law commented on my baby’s outfit — it was way, way too warm for such weather — I just smiled. “Thanks for letting me know that, Ma,” I said. And that’s when I knew I’d succeeded.

Broken Telephone

Nechama

 

I’d been in the parshah for more than two years when yet another promising idea fell through. That’s when my mother began wondering. It wasn’t the first time, so why were multiple people making a complete about-face? What were they hearing?

“You’re right, it’s odd,” my aunt said when my mother filled her in. Then she had an idea. “Send me her résumé. Let me call her references and see what they have to say.”

I didn’t know about any of this until my parents asked me to edit the résumé. “Michal can’t be on there anymore,” they said. I was confused. Why would I take off my closest friend, the person who knew me best?

That’s when my parents told me about my aunt’s call to Michal. When my aunt said who she was calling about, Michal was quick to sing all my praises. She told my aunt how friendly I was, that I volunteered for several chesed organizations, and that I was a great cook too. Then, when my aunt asked if there was “anything else to know,” Michal paused for a moment.

“Actually,” she said, “if you’re asking… Nechama takes medications every day. It’s not a big deal, but since you asked, I should be honest.”

When my aunt asked what the meds were, Michal was reticent. “I can’t share that information,” she said. It made what’s a completely manageable condition sound scary.

I had to sit down to process what I’d just heard. My head was heavy and fuzzy. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and violated. Why did Michal share my personal life with strangers?

Why did Michal feel the need to share this? She knew my medical background had barely any effect on my day-to-day life — which is why our rav said I wasn’t obligated to reveal it until after I started dating.

In a way, if Michal were single, I’d understand a tiny bit. I know people don’t talk about this much, but there’s an underlying jealousy among single friends. Everyone wants to be the one getting the dates and the one getting married.

If that had been the case with Michal, maybe I could justify what she did. It wouldn’t make it right, but at least I’d understand where the “slip” was coming from. But she was long married with a baby on the way. Didn’t she want me to be happy too?

For a long while afterward, I pulled away from Michal. I had excuses for why I couldn’t chat, why I couldn’t meet her for a quick lunch break during work, why I couldn’t stop by to visit Friday night like I always did. And each conversation that I didn’t excuse myself from was stilted.

When someone hurts you, I think the hardest part is realizing that you were wrong about them. I second-guessed every day, week, month, and year of our relationship.

Were we not as close as I’d thought we were? And if so, where else had I misjudged her?

Was she not as loyal as I’d always believed her to be? And if so, how else had she betrayed me?

I felt like I needed to be mad at her. After all, what she did was wrong… but I was tiring myself out. Coming up with excuses to get out of meeting with her took a lot of energy. Keeping our conversations curt was harder than speaking freely. I also realized that my parents should not have told me about what they’d learned — while they’d made a mistake in their shock, sharing this was rechilus, and I needed to work on myself not to accept it as fact.

That’s when I called a respected rebbetzin for advice. She told me I had two choices: Either I could bring the betrayal up with Michal so we could work through it, or I could decide that I wanted to let it go on my own.

I never asked Michal for her side of the story — did she misunderstand the psak from the rav or was it deliberate? — because the details didn’t matter to me anymore. I chose to let it go instead.

I think about the mishnah in Pirkei Avos, where Rabban Gamliel saw a skull floating in the water and said to it, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they who drowned you will be drowned.” If the first person was supposed to drown, why did the person who drowned him need to be punished? Because, yes, the first man was destined to drown — but the second man didn’t have to be the one who did it.

When it comes to Michal, I divide the story into two elements. One, there was what was supposed to happen to me — and that’s from Hashem. Two, Michal chose to be the one to carry out the plan — and that I need to forgive, simply because I don’t have room to carry around resentment.

The nuances of our relationship changed. She wasn’t the one I called to hash out big decisions with anymore. When I was dating my husband, I didn’t send her pictures of each outfit and ask for an opinion. She found out when everyone else did, when our engagement became official.

But when my own wedding day finally came, on the day when my slate was wiped clean, I pulled Michal into the circle. And we danced.

Family Ties

Rochie

Growing up with a father who suffered from severe paranoia, a scar from his tumultuous childhood, was confusing. If anyone asked, we were the perfect family. But behind closed doors, we were accustomed to regular beatings.

As kids, we didn’t understand what paranoia was or how to live with someone like my father, whose life was controlled by it.

As an adult, I rebelled against the strict guidelines that children in my father’s family were supposed to follow. My father ostracized me because of it. He forbade my siblings from speaking with me or inviting me to their simchahs, and they were too frightened to disobey.

After close to a year, one of my sisters reached out to me. I almost didn’t answer when she first called — I was fuming and hurt — but I’m glad that I did. She had married and, once out of my father’s shadows, realized that something was fundamentally wrong. We became close again.

Through her, I reconnected with my other siblings. Through lots of therapy, I began making sense of my childhood and building a healthy life atop it.

I never reconnected with my father, though. He refused to ever hear from me.

When I got the call that my father was unconscious and hours away from death, I called my rav. His directive was very clear: I needed to forgive my father and apologize to him.

“I forgive you,” I said out loud, although I was across the ocean from his deathbed. “I forgive you and I daven that you shouldn’t have to suffer in Shamayim because of my hurt or anger.” The second part, asking my father for mechilah, was a lot harder. I was upset that the rav had said I needed to do this — didn’t he understand my pain and humiliation? I was the one who needed to ask for forgiveness? But the rav had paskened, so I listened. “I forgive you — and please forgive me,” I whispered.

The next morning, I woke with a sense of peace that I’d never felt before. I was ready to let go, I was ready to move forward.

My father lived for a few more weeks. I wasn’t there for his petirah, I didn’t go to the levayah, and I struggled through the entire year of aveilus. It was confusing to be in mourning for someone I didn’t miss.

I still don’t go to my father’s kever, but I give tzedakah as a zechus for his neshamah to have an aliyah and — finally — a menuchah. I’m learning to understand that people are complex and only Hashem can understand them fully.

I don’t have to forgive what my father’s done, but I can still forgive him as a person. The demons that chased him, the terror he had of losing control, his paranoia — they shaped his actions in ways I won’t ever comprehend.

Of all the lessons I learned from this, the most important was about letting go. Your pain may be justified, your anger may be valid, but you’re only making things harder for yourself. So try to forgive anyway. As soon as you do, you’ll understand what it means to feel free.

The Other Side

Back when Hashem first created the world, He made dark and light, good and evil. Since that day, it’s been an ongoing war.

“Hashem put us down here because He wanted us to work hard and make our nefesh Elokis win,” says Mrs. Shaindy Jacobson, mentor and director of the Rosh Chodesh Society learning center for women. “Hashem knows we are not perfect and He wasn’t looking for that — there’s a reason He didn’t just make more angels. Being that we are human, we have faults and desires. We’ll get caught in the wrong things and make mistakes.”

The downside: The mistakes we make can hurt others along the way. Virtually everyone’s been in a situation where they caused someone pain. When that happens, we can look at it as, “I did something terrible and now it’s over,” or we can remember how Hashem created us with the ability to fall — and also with the ability to get back up.

“The same human system that allows us to do the wrong thing comes with a precious gift, the built-in ability to forgive,” Mrs. Jacobson pointed out.

When in a situation where you need to ask someone mechilah, says Mrs. Jacobson, the first step is to learn the halachos or speak with a rav. “Then, when you approach the person to ask for forgiveness in person, it needs to be with a humble heart.”

A humble heart isn’t formed on its own. “Give tzedakah, say a kapitel of Tehillim, learn something about forgiveness, daven at kivrei tzaddikim,” Mrs. Jacobson suggests. People can see through false personas, she stresses, so make sure your apology comes from your heart — that’s how it will enter theirs.

What about when you’re on the other side, being approached by someone asking for your forgiveness?

“It’s a leap of faith when you choose to forgive someone because usually they can’t take back the pain they caused,” Mrs. Jacobson says, citing the oft-repeated parable of a person who lets a handful of feathers into the wind. They’re nearly impossible to collect, no matter how badly the person wants them back. “You can choose to move on anyway because it’s hard to live when you’re holding on to so much hurt and anger.” It helps to remember that Hashem is the One running the world. If this happened under His watch, there must be a reason for it.

“The bottom line always comes back to this: Torah is Toras Chayim, a way of life. If Torah tells us to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others when they ask — even if it’s painful — we know that it’s the better way to live our lives.”

She quoted the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous aphorism: “There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Yes, people hurt you. But once you put together the pieces of your broken heart, you’ll have one that’s stronger than it could have been before.

“Teshuvah is misinterpreted as repentance,” Mrs. Jacobson notes, “but it actually comes from the Hebrew root of ‘return.’ When we do teshuvah, either in our relationship with Hashem or our relationships with others, we are returning to our essence, which is the pure piece of G-dliness that gives us life.”

“Saying something and carrying through on it are two different things,” Mrs. Jacobson says. “You’ll know you’ve truly come around when you’re back in the same situation — and choose to do things differently.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 711)

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