Angela W. Buchdahl | October 11, 2016
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On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof did the unthinkable. Just 21 years old at the time, he walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, joined in on a Bible study class for an hour, and then pulled out a handgun and murdered nine people. Police later uncovered Roof’s hate-filled manifesto in which he claimed he had ‘no choice’ but to kill black people. Just a few days later, relatives of some of his victims spoke directly to Roof at his first court appearance. He stood stone-faced as they each got up and spoke to him in turn. They shared their tremendous pain and anguish. But then they did something extraordinary – one by one, they offered their forgiveness. A daughter of one victim said: “You took something very precious from me…I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” The sister of another said: “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive, I pray God on your soul.”
I remember reading their words and feeling so moved by their compassion. But I remember thinking: If, G-d forbid, this had happened in our synagogue, would I encourage our members to offer forgiveness to a remorseless killer? I don’t think I could do it.
We Jews have also faced unimaginable evil, and Simon Wiesenthal’s memoir, The Sunflower presents a different approach to forgiveness. Wiesenthal spent years as a concentration camp prisoner during WWII, and he writes about how during his imprisonment, as he was forced into cleaning duty at an SS hospital, a nurse summoned him to the bedside of a 21-year-old Nazi soldier named Karl. Karl’s head was completely covered in bandages and he knew that he did not have much longer to live.
Karl unloaded his story on Wiesenthal, how he began as an innocent youth, how his parents disapproved of his joining the Nazi party. He confessed that as a soldier, he had herded hundreds of Jews into a house and set it on fire, and gunned down those who tried to escape. The soldier grabbed Wiesenthal’s hand in his, and said that he had to talk to a Jew and beg for forgiveness: “Without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Wiesenthal pulled his hand away and left the room without saying a word. The SS soldier died the next day.
Wiesenthal was haunted by his own silence – it tugged at his conscience, even to his last day. He asks his readers at the end of his book: “What would you have done?” This was not just a rhetorical question. The Sunflower was reissued later with a second half, containing over 50 responses to his question from prominent writers, theologians, and political activists from Deborah Lipstadt to Desmond Tutu. Virtually all of the Christians challenged Wiesenthal’s choice and felt he should have forgiven the dying man. But nearly all of the Jewish authors defended his decision.
Why such a difference between these approaches? It is not that Jews are a particularly grudge-filled people; we’re not. Or that we don’t encourage forgiveness; we most certainly do. But Judaism does not elevate forgiveness as an automatic, unconditional response to every instance of wrongdoing. To understand why so many Jewish thinkers responded as they did, we first have to understand what Judaism requires for repentance, for asking for forgiveness.
First and foremost – one must ask for forgiveness directly from the person we have wronged. There is no getting around this. Many years ago Mike Wallace did a 60 Minutes interview with Chuck Colson. Some of you will remember Colson as the first official in the Nixon administration to go to jail in connection with the Watergate scandal. In prison, Colson was born-again and became an Evangelical minister, and went on to found a worldwide prison ministry. But when Wallace asked Colson if he felt any need to apologize to the people he had hurt, Colson responded “No, I have made peace with God in my heart.”
For Jews, making peace in your heart, or even with God, is not sufficient.
At the end of our Yom Kippur morning service, we will read these words that come from the Mishnah: “For sins between a person and God – Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between one person to another, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases the other.” (Yoma 87b)
If a sin is ben Adam l’Makom, between you and God, and you have come here today needing to atone for that – You’re good. Our tradition says that being here with an open heart on Yom Kippur atones for sins between you and God. Despite some of what we read in the bible, the good news is that God is quite forgiving.
The bad news is that most of our sins are not directed against G-d. And we are taught that if an injury or hurt is ben Adam l’havero, between you and another person, then being here, and pounding your chest and praying hard, well – it’s not enough. Jewish law instructs us that it is only in a personal encounter with the one we have hurt that we can truly repent. Facing the person we injured acknowledges that sin is more than some amorphous wrongdoing, but something quite specific done to some-one. And we can only begin to repair it if we directly address the person we wounded.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel underscored this point when he responded to Wiesenthal’s question: “What would you do?” – with a story about the Rabbi of Brisk. The Brisker Rebbe was a great scholar, well-known all around Eastern Europe. One day he boarded a train in Warsaw and found himself seated with three, rather tipsy traveling salesmen. They invited him to join as a fourth in a game of cards, but he said he never played cards. Not recognizing the small, plainly-dressed stranger, the three men on the train grew more and more annoyed with his refusal, and eventually one of them grabbed him by the collar and pushed him out of the compartment, where he stood for hours in the cold until they reached the city of Brisk. Upon arrival a large group of students were waiting to greet the beloved Brisker Rebbe. The salesman, mortified, realized whom he had offended. He quickly went to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. But the rabbi declined to forgive him. The salesman begged him again, but the rabbi uncharacteristically, turned away. The salesman could find no peace. He came back to the rabbi and said, “I am not a rich man but I have saved 300 rubles and I will donate them to charity if you forgive me.” But the rabbi refused, even then.
Finally, the salesman went to the Rabbi’s son – who was surprised that his compassionate father was being so unforgiving. He went to his father and asked him why. The Brisker Rebbe replied: “I cannot forgive him, because he didn’t offend me – the Brisker Rebbe. He never would have treated me like that. He offended a commoner, a stranger. Let the salesman go and ask him for forgiveness.”
This story helps explain many of the Jewish responses to Wiesenthal’s question: In the Jewish tradition, no one has the authority to forgive sins committed against other people. You cannot confess to your rabbi and be absolved. Even God doesn’t claim that authority. How could Wiesenthal be expected to grant forgiveness for crimes committed against so many?
While Wiesenthal’s story is one of unthinkable, perhaps unforgivable sin, the Brisker Rebbe shows that we are each responsible for asking forgiveness directly for the more typical slights we humans do to each other all the time – the daily indignities, insults and injuries that litter our lives.
And when we seek forgiveness, it’s not enough to turn to the person we have hurt with genuine remorse. We also must resolve not to repeat our errors again. And we can only demonstrate teshuva gemura, complete atonement, when we are in the same situation with the same opportunity to do wrong and we choose another path. Complete forgiveness might take months or years to realize.
So Judaism sets a high bar for forgiveness: we have to apologize directly and sincerely, we have to commit to not doing it again, and then we actually have to change.
And what happens when we apologize and are not forgiven? In that case, we are told, we have to go back and apologize again. And if turned away a second time, we have to ask once more. But Maimonides teaches that after the third time, if someone apologizes and has demonstrated different behavior, and is still not forgiven, the offender is released from his/her obligation, and the one who refuses forgiveness becomes the achzari, the Cruel one. We become the sinner.
The fact that our tradition speaks of a process by which a person can come to us 3 times asking for forgiveness, is a testament to how hard it can be to forgive our deepest hurts. Sometimes, we find it impossible.
Not too long ago, a woman shared with me the story of how her husband was killed by a drunk driver, leaving her widowed with two children. This crime happened 25 years ago, and I asked her if she had forgiven the man who committed it. And she said, “I will never forgive him.” I pressed her a bit more on the subject, explaining that I was thinking about talking about forgiveness on Yom Kippur. She said, “If you stand up as my rabbi and tell me I have to forgive the drunk driver who killed my husband, I will walk out of the sanctuary.”
I was challenged and humbled by her response. My general instinct is to encourage people to forgive, if only to relieve some of the burden and pain of holding anger. But I can’t say what I would do in such a circumstance. I knew that I couldn’t stand before our congregation and suggest that she forgive her husband’s unrepentant killer. And in fact, our tradition would say she had no obligation, that she lacked even the authority to forgive him on behalf of her husband, only for her own hurt.
As I reflected further, I wondered if she felt that forgiving that man would in some way diminish her husband’s memory. Because there is something in the nature of forgiving that includes a little forgetting. She was paying a price for holding onto this pain, but perhaps it was a burden she felt obligated, even honored, to carry.
And just as I struggled with what to say to her, I have struggled with this sermon and saying whether or not you should forgive those who hurt you. But ultimately it is not my place, and it is beyond my power, to instruct you. Judaism will never tell you that you must forgive. Just like life’s hardest questions: “What is God?” “What happens when I die?” when we ask ourselves, “Should I forgive?” Judaism does not give one answer – but guidelines, wisdom, and agency. We have a choice.
Deciding to forgive can be one of the hardest things to do. But so is deciding not to.
A woman came to me this year with a story of her husband’s infidelity. He had admitted the transgression, cut off the illicit relationship, and shown true remorse, and he was committed to prioritizing their relationship. But she still could not forgive him; her feelings of betrayal and hurt were too deep. They were both truly suffering. When I asked her why she could not forgive she said simply, “I feel like that condones the act. And I still want to punish him.”
Often the most challenging parts of offering forgiveness is the sense that the offender doesn’t deserve and hasn’t earned our forgiveness. But forgiveness is not about what you are offering someone else – it’s what you give yourself. Forgiveness is a decision about how you want to live. It’s taking control of how much power you allow someone else’s sin to have over you. It is a mistake to confuse forgiveness with justice, to think that withholding your forgiveness is a form of punishment for the person who hurt you. In fact the opposite is often true: as the saying goes, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die.” It never works that way.
Again and again, I see the burdens that people carry when they choose not to forgive. Pain, betrayal and humiliation can occupy so much psychic real estate in our brains. We hold onto slights we’ve endured at the hands of our family, co-workers, and friends who excluded us, judged us unfairly, took undue credit or were unappreciative. We have been undermined, cheated, lied to. We have been scarred by emotional or even physical abuse. We havereal grievances. And our tradition understands the limits of forgiveness. But we also must ask while the gates are open – what would be possible if we could forgive?
On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read in our machzor the words of Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh: “To attain truth one must pass through gates, each opening to a new question, the last question beyond which one cannot live without faith.”
I love this as a metaphor not just for attaining truth, but for forgiveness as well. Because we all know that forgiving isn’t fast. It doesn’t happen in an instant. It is an intention – of unlocking a gate that may feel irrevocably shut. Of opening it tentatively, putting one foot in front of the other to walk through – sometimes with great effort, all the time asking, “Is the person who hurt me really remorseful?” “Has this person changed?”
And each time we see the person who injured us, each time we have to re-live our loss, our humiliation, our betrayal, our pain, we stand at a threshold and are hit with new questions:
“Why am I still holding onto this anger?”
“What burden will I continue to bear if I do not forgive?”
“Could forgiveness be a gateway to a life of greater peace?”
It is said that when God ascends the Throne of Judgement on Rosh Hashanah, that God also prays. What is it that God prays for? While God is seated in Judgement, God prays for compassion and the ability to overcome anger so that God can be more forgiving.
Forgiveness is a hope and aspiration.
Forgiveness is a prayer – even for God;
maybe for all of us.
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