Wanted: Atonement (Or ‘How Can You Ever Forgive Yourself?’)

by | Sep 21, 2015

What’s the difference between atonement & forgiveness? & how do you reach the peace of mind of forgiving yourself? 


Atonement & Self-ForgivenessLast week, a friend shared a link to atone.net. It’s a website that collects anonymous submissions of things that people feel that they need forgiveness for, the majority of which are deeply moving and many of which are heart-breaking. 


I haven’t been keeping count, but it seems to me that most of the submissions are about sins against oneself (anger, self-doubt, self-loathing, justifying one’s inaction, wasting one’s potential, low self-esteem). Even the ones about interactions with others are really more about the writer than the victim (“Turning away from people who loved me” “Not repairing my broken relationship with my Dad” “Not letting myself care for others”). Most of the anonymous writers seem to be seeking a sense of atonement that comes from within, not forgiveness that comes from an Other, and that has led me to understand more clearly the difference between the two. 


Atonement is a feeling that comes from within the wrongdoer him/herself, following some process that makes us feel that we have ‘paid for’ our misdeeds. The original Hebrew word is kapparah – כפרה. The most common form of kapparah was to bring a sacrifice, sometimes along with various levels of ‘punishments’ that were not solely punitive but were part of the atonement process. 


The sacrifice was usually a pretty expensive one in the scheme of things, and the experience of watching an animal* be killed and offered up was meant to remind the sinner that he was the one who deserved death, as well as symbolizing the death of that part of the wrongdoer that had transgressed so badly. It was a dramatic lesson that should make him think twice before acting the same way in the future. After going through such an experience (which included fully confessing one’s sins, and where necessary making whatever amends could be made for wrong that was done to another person), the wrongdoer was able to feel that his sins were behind him. He had atoned, and could now forgive himself. 


Forgiveness is different. Forgiveness comes from outside of us (from another person, or from G-d). While a free pass out of guilt might seem wonderful, in the reality of our complicated psychology it doesn’t always help the wrongdoer (even assuming the victim is willing to forgive). First of all, it requires that there be another party involved. If I waste your time, I have to ask your forgiveness, and if you forgive me then perhaps I can put it behind me. But what about sins against myself? I have no one to ask for forgiveness, and if I feel unable to forgive myself then I remain stuck in a place of guilt and self-anger, seeing no way to move to a place of self-forgiveness.


Because forgiveness is something that is given (or not) as a free gift by the victim, the wrongdoer’s inability to earn it can destroy him emotionally. Let’s take a scenario I read about yesterday, where one person accidentally caused a huge loss to his very dear friend. The victim forgave his friend freely and entirely, recognizing that it was a pure accident, but the friend never forgave himself. Think about that for a moment: what did the friend really have to forgive himself for? Forgiveness was entirely in the hands of the victim, and he had no right to take over the victim’s place by feeling that he could give it or refuse it. But he didn’t want forgiveness: he wanted atonement. He wanted to feel that he had somehow paid for his accidental wrong-doing because he didn’t feel that he deserved to be forgiven. He had no way to do so, and that dissonance was more than he could bear. For many years he avoided his friend: Ironically, their relationship was damaged more by his friend’s forgiveness than by his original wrongdoing.  


Several years ago, I heard that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was part of a group of rabbis who were trying to revive the Sanhedrin, the body of 70 learned Torah scholars who sat as a religious Supreme Court, with the power of corporal and capital punishment for certain sins/crimes. Apparently, when asked what was the first thing that he wanted the revived Sanhedrin to do, Rabbi Steinsaltz replied ‘reinstate malkot‘ (the 39 lashes that are given as a punishment for many religious transgressions). This answer puzzled his interviewer, who expected him to reply with a far grander vision than punishments for petty crimes. 


Rabbi Steinsaltz explained that there are many people who feel crushed under the weight of their previous sins. Even though they have moved away from their negative behaviors and no longer commit these transgressions, and have often even been forgiven by their previous victims, they don’t feel that they can ever forgive themselves. They yearn for a process of atonement, and Rabbi Steinsaltz recognized that a Sanhedrin able to administer the required punishment for relevant sins would be truly valuable.


However, for the moment there is no prescribed process of atonement. We each need to find our own path to self-forgiveness. I would love to hear from any readers who feel that they’ve reached a place of self-forgiveness/atonement, and how they succeeded in getting there.

Please comment below, or email me privately abradley@staje.org



*Please note: I am not making any kind of judgement about whether or not animal sacrifice should take place, or whether or not it is cruel to the animals. I am only bringing it up in the context of the impact that this form of atonement has on the wrongdoer.