Tariq Ramadan states: “The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves; the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.” All of this we can seek to achieve by ourselves.
But the Ramadan sawm, like the Yom Kippur tsom is not just fasting for self-improvement. Fasting brings humans closer to God. And God always urges us to improve ourselves through repentance because: “Indeed, I am the Perpetual Forgiver of whoever repents and believes and does righteousness and then continues in guidance.” (Qur’an 20:82)
Since many of our sins involve our treatment of other people; part of our repentance includes asking for, and receiving, forgiveness from other people. Generally, people who honestly admit their interpersonal sins and request forgiveness are able to achieve reconciliation, with another person, especially if they persist.
But sometimes those we have sinned against, just refuse to forgive us.
And sometimes we have waited too long to repent; and those we have sinned against are no longer alive to forgive. What then? How can the guilty sinner forgive himself or herself?
In Judaism, the Talmud (Yoma 85a-b) teaches us that if a person has made three separate attempts at reconciliation, and been rebuffed each time, that is sufficient for God to forgive, even if the other person never does forgive. And if God forgives you, you must forgive yourself.
Yet many good hearted idealistic people keep trying to fix bad relationships, often exposing themselves, and sometimes others, to new hurts and rejections. They need to understand that without the co-operation of another person, some hurts and bad feelings cannot be healed.
The only remedy then is to let that person go; and to begin again with new opportunities to atone by giving extra charity, as Anas related: “The Prophet was asked, ‘Which type of charity is best?’ He responded, ‘Charity done during Ramadan.’ ” (Tirmidhi, #663); and doing good deeds for other suffering people.
The following fable illustrates this important understanding.
A mother once gave her daughter a box of nails and told her that every time she lost her temper or insulted somebody she must hammer a nail into a large tree in the back yard.
The first day the girl hit 9 nails into the tree. Over the next few weeks, as she learned to control her anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled. She discovered it was easier to hold her temper than to drive those nails into the tree.
Finally the day came when the girl didn't lose her temper at all. She told her mother about it and the mother suggested that the girl now pull out one nail for each day that she was able to hold her temper. The days passed. Finally, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.
The mother took her daughter by the hand and led her to the tree. She said, "You have done well, my daughter, but look at all the holes in the tree. The tree will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like these." You can put a knife in a person and draw it out. It does not matter how many times you say I'm sorry, a wound is still there. A verbal wound is almost as bad as a physical one.
“How can I fix the tree?” asked the girl. “Will it have to remain damaged forever?”
“Yes and no” said the mother. “The Rabbis say that if the tree is still alive, and responds to the way you have changed, it too can change and heal itself. If the tree is dead to the possibility of your repentance, it will carry its scars onward. Either way the tree will never be as it was before, but it doesn’t have to become perfect to be a good tree.
“If you do your part and change, and the tree does its part in response, God will do something wonderful. God will promote a healing that will make you and the tree better then you were before. This process is called Atonement. Atonement means that the changes that come about from repentance and forgiveness lead people to higher levels of relationship than was the case before and this pleases God.”
“What happens if the tree doesn’t respond?” asked the girl. “Can I ever make it whole?”
“You should try on three different occasions,” said the mother, “but if the tree remains dead to you even after you have changed, YOU can’t force it to heal. In that case you should help another tree somewhere else. There are always lots of tree that need care, and whenever you nourish a tree God will make something wonderful happen. That is the miracle of Atonement.
“God always responds to our attempts to change by helping us change; and God always responds to our change by giving us new and wonderful opportunities for successful Atonement. This is why Jews have a Day of Atonement ten days after the beginning of every New Year; so the New Year will be a better year than the last year.”
Allah promises all human beings who find some way to repent, that we will always have the opportunity to repent and return to Allah, as the Qur’an teaches: “But as for one who had repented, believed, and done righteousness, it is promised by Allah that he will be among the successful.” (Qur’an 28:67)
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com