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

A Special Seventy

Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time.
How long can we go on being angry?
— Elie Wiesel

"In my childhood, I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from You," Elie Wiesel writes in a prayer to God. Over the years, through the darkest of suffering, Wiesel confesses his anger at God, at writing harsh words against God and wondering what was worse: God's silence or God's absence. Over time, Wiesel questions if he has been fair to put so much expectation on God's shoulders and so little on his fellow human beings, "...Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men." Wiesel ends his powerful prayer by requesting renewed intimacy with God. It is time to make up.

Wiesel's prayer is contained in a potent small book of essays, 70 Days for 70 Years, created for exactly this season. This week we started the project, a collaborative effort of England's United Synagogue and other organizations to provide a book with 70 essays to mark the 70 years it has been since the Holocaust. In 1985, 40 years after its liberation, a man named Rabbi Shapira went to a commemorative event at Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp. Rabbi Shapira worried, as an orphan of the Holocaust, how his own family in the future would hold on to these dark and formative memories. He asked Yad Vashem for 30 names of children who died in the war to give to 30 children in his town to perpetuate their memories more personally. 

In 1995, 50 years after liberation, Rabbi Andrew Shaw gave 5,000 English students 5000 names of those who died in the Shoah and asked that they study in their memory for 50 days. These are small acts we do to redeem those who died; they live on in our memory, our learning and in our acts of kindness. It's an inspiring global Jewish project, and you can get involved and take your next steps to living memory. It's just one click away.

Avner Shalev, chairmen of Yad Vashem, opens his remarks in the book with this line from David Berger, originally from Poland, who was shot and died in Vilna in 1941. "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." David had a keen sense of his mortality and the danger that lurked everywhere about him. This is the kind of sentiment we expect from someone old and wise, who had lived fully and had much to share. But David Berger was only 22 when he died. He had so much more to do on this planet. He left us one wish: that someone remember that he once existed.

Seventy is a special number is Jewish tradition. Seventy people, we read in Exodus 1, went down to Egypt and became our fledging Jewish nation. Later, Moses gathered 70 elders to assist him with the running our the Israelite community. There were seventy men in the Sanhedrin, our great ancient court, and we have a tradition that there are 70 faces of interpretation. In the Talmud we speak of 70 languages as the plethora of languages spoken in the universe. On Sukkot we offer 70 sacrifices on behalf of all the nations. We like to think of seventy as a number of true globalism. 

As a global Jewish community, there could not be a better time to reflect on Jewish suffering and pain; the world is larger than ever and sometimes more frightening than ever. We sometimes forget about the alarming rhetoric that stirred the pot of anti-Jewish hatred then, even though the world offers up its reminders from time to time. Perhaps we can take on Elie Wiesel's approach - using this time to renew old relationships through earning every day for these 70 days in honor of the people we've become in these remarkable 70 years since then. 

And maybe through this daily study and reflection, we can strengthen our relationship to faith and God as a way of redeeming the darkness. "Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time."

Shabbat Shalom