Can We Forgive?

…at the time when someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him…
— Maimonides, “Laws of Repentance” 2:10

Decades ago, the Nazi hunter and author Simon Wiesenthal wrote The Sunflower, a fictional scenario of an S.S. officer on his deathbed begging for forgiveness from a Holocaust victim. The officer was sincere in his regret, but the victim could only offer him silence - the silence that he felt was the response of so many others to Nazi war crimes: “...Ought I to have forgiven him?” ponders the survivor after the soldier’s death: “Today the world demands that we forgive and forget heinous crimes committed against us. It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened...”
Wiesenthal challenges all of us who are not in this difficult position to ponder the same question: can we forgive? “The crux of the matter is, of course, forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.” Wiesenthal then asked his readership what they would have done in the survivor’s place. He placed this question to writers and theologians and collected the responses in the book.
We tend to think it’s harder to ask for forgiveness than it is to forgive. Yet time and again, even after we have technically granted forgiveness, we realize that a residual pain lingers, that we cannot trust again or that a relationship has inherently changed. We have not totally forgiven. This is why Maimonides’ words above are particularly instructive. Let’s repeat them: “ the time that someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him...” It’s not easy to have a complete heart and a willing soul, especially when someone has profoundly hurt you. Maimonides asks us to dig deep in the wells of compassion.
I am always struck when people tell me that they simply cannot forgive someone for an offense or an insult, even in this season of forgiveness. It’s almost as if there’s a mental list: I can forgive this but not that, this one but not that one. It’s a list that may never be shared or possibly not even articulated, but it’s there, an invisible barrier to complete healing.
There’s another statement of Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance, that speaks directly to the Wiesenthal case. In chapter four, Maimonides lists obstructions to repentance; 24 to be exact. He singles out five of these because “it is impossible for the person who commits them to repent completely.” One of them is “the one who maligns the many without mentioning a specific person from whom he can request forgiveness.” Wiesenthal’s fictional Nazi wanted forgiveness from the many. It can never be granted. There is no one specific to ask who could possibly forgive for this collective, tragic wrong-doing.
But what about us? We might watch our gossip against individuals but not hesitate to malign an entire community. We can ask forgiveness from a person. We cannot ask forgiveness from a community. This should give us pause when we’re about to make a cutting judgment, affirm a stereotype or dismiss a group who think or act differently than we do - especially in this tense election season.
Forgiveness is a volitional act. We have a choice when we are in the position to forgive completely. Maimonides encourages us to make a positive, compassionate choice. But when we malign a group, we cannot hope for complete forgiveness. It’s best then to be vigilant with our restraint, as Eleanor Roosevelt wisely advised: “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
Shabbat Shalom

For the Sin of...

And for the sin which we have committed before You intentionally or unintentionally...
— Traditional Holiday Prayer Book

In advance of Yom Kippur, I was doing a quick skim of the prayer book to prepare myself mentally for the stress of confession. When you glance at the list you notice that many confessions involve speech, sight and intention. There are also many that capture the things we do wrong even when we are confused or don’t intend any hurt. We have to take responsibility for these wrongdoings as well because no matter the intention, there is also an action. Here are a few to illustrate:

For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.

For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.

And for the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.

At the end of this list, we also mention the sacrifices we would have brought for these offenses had we still had a Temple. “And for the sins for which we are obligated to bring a guilt-offering for a certain or doubtful wrongdoing.” One way we repented for intentional and unintentional sins in the days of old was through sacrifice. As we enter the sacred holiday season and reflect on ancient practices, we turn to the odd practice of the scapegoat, offered by the High Priest in the Temple, to rid ourselves collectively of sin. 

In traditional prayer books, we travel through the Yom Kippur rite almost as an omniscient narrator, tracing the priest’s steps and trying to imagine his trepidation as he offered this gift, hoped for our atonement, and was ready to pay the price with his life if his sacrifices on our behalf failed to achieve a clean slate.

The priest initially offered a bull on behalf of himself and his family. If he was not worthy, we did not want him acting as our messenger. We needed to know that he was spiritually pure and prepared when we sent him off on this holiest of days to represent us. The high priest then took two male goats. According to rabbinic elaboration of this ritual, the goats had to be exactly the same, virtually indistinguishable. In the wilderness, the priest brought them to the entrance of our portable sanctuary and cast lots. One goat would be offered as a sin offering on behalf of the entire community.

The other - the seir le’azazel - the scapegoat, was sent off into the wilderness. According to some Hebrew scholars, azazel means to remove entirely. It was to be accompanied by any human being out into the vast expanse of nowhere. In the Bible, it seems like it wanders off and away. In the Talmud, it must be led to a cliff and meet its death - not led by any escort but by another priest. As I wrote in my book Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, “Although in talmudic interpretations the goat met its death, in the biblical text the goat was merely shunted to an inaccessible region, a stunning metaphor for the abandonment of sin. We cannot kill the past; we can only hope that it travels to an inaccessible place where it no longer tempts, marks, or harms us.”

To me, the two goats symbolize fate, randomness and closure. The two goats were exactly the same. The two goats both died but in different ways. The two goats symbolically express different forms of contrition. Sometimes we make an offering, and sometimes we hope that what we’ve done wrong will just go away. Take away our sins that we may live and enjoy the freedom to become anew. The lot that is cast expresses the randomness of our fate on any given year. We intend many of our wrongdoings. Others we didn’t mean, but we hurt people and our intimacy with God suffers anyway. Some wrongs can be righted. Others - like the goat that wandered - leave a residual mess.

We use a lot of animals this season to take sin “away:” the fish in the ritual of tashlich, the chicken that is swung as a substitute for us, the goat that is offered on the altar, the goat that is sent off that carries our sins. All of it is not a substitute for repentance but serves instead as an inspiration and a mirror to self and community. Whether it actually accomplishes this is hard to say. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” We know that all too well.

In a few days we will stand with humility on Yom Kippur. We will face our wrongs and commit to right them. We will take responsibility for the intentional and unintentional ways we walk in the world and hope we can be as generous in granting true forgiveness as we are in asking for it. We will seek closure but understand that sometimes we have to wander in the wilderness for a while.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom

The Metrics of Repentance

Throughout the entire year a person should always view himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and view the world as equally balanced between merit and sin.
— Maimonides

The cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden makes a skin cream called Visible Difference. I don't know if it works, but it's a great marketing ploy. It suggests that you will see a noticeable difference after use. It's also a great tagline for this season of repentance. When you say you're going to change, when you beat your chest in contrition, when you forgive someone else, will there be a visible difference? If repentance is done right, you should be able to see the change in yourself and so should others. If you have truly forgiven another person, there should not be residual discomfort in his or her presence but a return to a warm and loving intimacy. When it comes to Yom Kippur, it's all about the returning, the recovery of relationships between ourselves and God, ourselves and others, ourselves and the person we diminished when we were too hard on ourselves.

How can we make a visible difference in ourselves this coming year?

We turn to the medieval philosopher Maimonides. He collected the laws of teshuva, repentance, and wove them into a masterful ten chapter compilation. Many have the custom of studying one chapter per day for the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This year, I keep thinking about chapter three and the expression "visible difference." Maimonides writes clearly and succinctly that "every person has merits and sins. If his merits exceed his sins, he is righteous. If his sins exceed his merits, he is wicked, and if they are half and half, he is an 'in-between'"[a benoni in Hebrew]. Maimonides believed that just as this is true for an individual, is it true for a country and for the entire world.

This formula for repentance is simple. All we have to do is make sure that our merits exceed our wrongdoings, and we are good. We are actually righteous. But here's the problem that Maimonides introduces. It's a game of numbers, but we have no idea how the point system works. Some transgressions are so terrible that they are equivalent to many good deeds. And some of the good we do is so good that it knocks off many sin points. When put on a scale, not every demerit and merit is equal. Later in the chapter, Maimonides says that God also gives us a slight handicap for goodness, even though we are still unsure of how to measure ourselves. To add to this dilemma, Maimonides says that the only one who knows how this grading system works is God, and God is not talking.

And that is the point. Maimonides wants us to view ourselves as if we are in the in-between category all of the time. We cannot write ourselves off for the wrongs that we do because our goodness may exculpate us. We cannot rest confident in our goodness because our wrongdoings get the better of us sometimes. But if we walk in the world constantly wondering how to accrue more goodness points and ask ourselves if we have counterbalanced an act of cruelty, carelessness, slander or neglect with a double dose of kindness, mercy, sensitivity or selflessness, chances are we will lead a noble life indeed.

Maimonides adds one more critical detail to this perspective on change based on a passage of Talmud: "Since the world is judged by the majority [of its merits and sins] and the individual is similarly judged by the majority, if one does a mitzva, good be upon him. He has pulled himself and the entire world to the side of merit. But if he commits even one sin, he pulls himself and the entire world to the side of demerit" [BT Kiddushin 40b]. In other words, when we measure our deeds we are not acting as independent agents. With each act of goodness we do, we tip the scales for ourselves and the entire world. Maimonides understood something that we often dismiss: the power of one small act of goodness to change the world.

It is time to ask ourselves what are the metrics we will use this year to assess a visible difference in ourselves, our own point system. Instead of your BMI (body mass index), think of a SMI (soul mass index). What are the numbers that I need to change in my spiritual world to tip the scales for myself and others? More minutes in prayer, more blessings, more hours of study, more time devoted to children or friends more time visiting the sick, less time speaking or thinking ill of others? If we don't measure goodness in any way, how will we make a visible difference in 5774?

We are moments away from the Day of Judgment. Take a few minutes of quiet today to write a brief list of a five arenas where you need to make a visible difference. Write down where you are now and where you'd like to be. And remember that when you do even one act of goodness, you pull yourself further on the scale of merit  - and the entire world comes with you.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!