It’s a script upon which many of us relied, when we were younger. It was likely handed down to us, at school, by older students. We recited it around this time of year – somewhere between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We believed that it would ward off Hashem’s anger at us and somehow protect us:
I’ll be Mochel you, if you’ll be Mochel me. (The term Mochel is commonly translated as “forgive”.)
As we got older, many of us began to question the meaning and value of this breezy bid for forgiveness. “Did I specifically acknowledge what I did wrong? Did I even admit to doing anything wrong?”
Those of us who were even more advanced might have wondered “Why am I dangling my potentially forgiving him, in trying to secure his forgiveness of me? Is my Mechillah request a genuine attempt to repair a relationship, a manner of honoring his personhood? It almost feels as though I’m treating him like a cog in my machinations to make Hashem happy.” Some of us might have stopped relying on this or any other forgiveness formula.
That is not to say that we’ve stopped hurting people. There are those who’ve hurt us or whom we’ve hurt, from whom we’ve simply drifted. They were once a high school classmate, a seminary roommate, a coworker.
There are those who are very much a part of our lives, whom we may hurt on a frequent basis. It might be a spouse, a child, a colleague, even a parent. We are critical when they are not tidy enough for us, when they’re not pulling the grades we expected, when they’re not getting the job done. In our parents’ case, we become frustrated, when they show less flexibility in their ability to manage life.
We mock. We get drawn into power struggles. We weaponize silence.
How can we repair that which has become dysfunctional? How might we mend the rips and tears in our relationships? Perhaps, it’s time to revisit and revamp the Mechillah process of our youth. A request for Mechillah, if done properly, can actually be quite ennobling.
It all starts with the first step of Teshuvah/Repentance, which is Vidui.
Vidui – like its etymological cousin Hoda’ah – is really about recognizing and acknowledging. Vidui specifically means confiding the following words:
“I hurt you.”
Let’s take the words, one at a time.
“I”: The bad thing didn’t just happen by itself. I was involved, perhaps actively, perhaps passively; perhaps intentionally, perhaps without thinking. I’m, at least, a partial owner of what happened.
“Hurt”: My words and actions have an impact. Moreover, even as I prefer to see myself as a good person, I am capable of hurting others.
“You”: Life isn’t just about me. Just as I am a “center” of my own motivations, preferences, and needs, so too are you. In hurting you, I likely neglected the YOU of the equation.
Vidui, when practiced as “ownership”, is quite powerful, even transformational. It sets the stage for the second step of Teshuvah, Charatah, which means remorse.
Charatah is not merely something we communicate. It’s a sentiment that ripens, over the course of time, inside of us. Charatah typically involves our facing the impact of something hurtful we’ve done. We become increasingly aware of our effect on the other person and on the relationship. Moreover, we notice how we’ve degraded our selves. Charatah includes opening ourselves up to a sense of sadness and healthy, proportional guilt.
A vital, but often overlooked component of Charatah, is the recognition that we had options. We cannot be truly remorseful until we recognize that there was a different way for us to have conducted our end of the business: “I didn’t have to slam the door. I might have described my dissatisfaction in a less demeaning fashion. I might have waited for a more opportune, mutually acceptable moment to share my concerns.” In short, I didn’t have to frighten, shame or coerce the other, in meeting my perceived needs.
The third and final stage of Teshuvah is Azivas HaChet, or “Re-course”. Azivas HaChet means taking concrete action to change the way we interact with others: I commit to interact more gently, with compassion, with patience. I take ownership not only of my Middos/character traits, but of the vulnerabilities that derail my Middos. I try to gain insight into my own triggers, my own frustrations, my own fears, and unmet needs and the ways I cast, or project them onto others. When possible, I set up mechanisms for accountability.
I am going to review the steps of a meaningful Mechillah request and demonstrate what they look like. First, though, I’d like to address a common pitfall in the Mechillah process.
We tend to think in binary fashion: It’s either all his fault or all my fault.” The corollary is: “If I’m the one asking for Mechillah, then I’m acknowledging it’s all my fault.” In fact, most interpersonal conflict involves decisions – perhaps even poor decisions – made by both parties.
Here’s the outline of a Mechillah request, for when both parties bear some responsibility.
Vidui: “Without getting into the specifics of our argument last week, you didn’t deserve my screaming at you.”
Charatah: “I could have simply ended the conversation, or calmly restated my original point. How I did handle things was clearly not helpful to you.”
Azivas HaChet: “I’m taking a closer look at what it was, about our interaction, that set me off. (That’s because it’s ultimately my responsibility to recognize and address my triggers.) If and when you are ready, please let me know how I can make things better between us. No pressure.”
The 3 steps of Mechillah, if they are genuine, can be a tall order. When we don’t simply transmit or perform them, but rather transform ourselves through them, when we engage in them as a form of honoring the personhood of someone whom we’ve hurt, they create the conditions for that someone to begin forgiving us.
May we all embark on a sincere Teshuvah journey, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Yehuda Krohn, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, provides individual and couples therapy in his Chicago-area private practice. He writes, presents and edits on Torah, Psychology and the intersection of the two. Rabbi Dr. Krohn is a board member of Nefesh International. Rabbi Dr. Krohn can be reached, by phone, at 847-763-1184 and, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.