“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”
(Khaled Hosseini, the Kite runner)
There are moments in our lives that we will never forget.
For me, one such moment was on November 19, 1977. I was only 8 years old, but I still remember that day so clearly. How we were told to dress in blue and white, how we were taken out of school to stand by the main road leading to the Knesset – the Israeli parliament, how we were holding small blue and white flags in our hand and were waving them toward the procession of formal black cars. Even as a small child, I could truly feel that history was being made on that day – it was the day when President Anwar Sadat, the greatest enemy of the Jewish state at the time, made his historic visit to Israel.
It was only 4 years after the devastating Yom Kippur War and Israelis were still slowly healing from the loss of almost 3000 of our best young adults and close to 10,000 people were learning to live with their injuries. The entire country was in a state of shock, and disbelief, that such a thing could happen to the tiny nation that just 10 years ago emerged victorious out of the Six Day War.
Sadat surprised the entire world when he said he would accept an invitation to come to Jerusalem. And when he actually followed through and arrived in Jerusalem, he gave one of the most beautiful speeches I have ever heard. His speech spoke about his true will to end war, his vision that there will be no more widows or orphans, his conviction–and I quote: “that the obligation of my responsibility before God, and before the people, make it incumbent on me that I should go to the farthest corner of the world to pursue peace, even to Jerusalem.”
This conviction eventually cost him his life.
In response to his heartfelt sentiments, Golda Meir addressed President Sadat with what I think are some of her most memorable words. She said: "I can forgive you for killing my boys, but I can never forgive you for making our boys kill yours."
On this Yom Kippur, as we reflect on the essence of this day, as we remember that horrible war, as well as Golda’s statement, we are forced to think about the power and the limits of forgiveness.
On Yom Kippur, we don’t usually pay attention to forgiveness, because for some reason we think that this day is all about saying how SORRY we are, and about how hard it is to say, “I’M SORRY.” After all, this is what we teach our children all the time…and if you don’t believe me, just look on line at the hundreds of children’s books entitled “Hard to say I’m sorry” or “Sorry is the Hardest Word”.
Saying you are sorry might be challenging, but I want to suggest to you today, and explore together, how much harder it actually is, not to ask for forgiveness, but rather to grant it. To say to those who hurt us the most, the powerful words: “I forgive.”
We have all asked friends and we have all asked God for forgiveness. But, do we actually know how to forgive? Do we have the spiritual strength to forgive?
So many of us carry in our hearts people we are convinced we can’t and we will never forgive.
So tonight, let’s talk about this challenge, forgiveness. For forgiveness is a divine quality.
When Moses speaks with Adonai, on behalf of the Jewish people, he says, “Forgive the wrong doings of this people, and all who dwell in their midst, according to the greatness of your covenantal love. For in all of us, your people, is there unwitting wrongdoing” (Numbers 14:19)
And in the very next moment, we chant God’s response to that heartfelt request.
Vayomer Adonai, salachti kidvarecha: And God said, “I have forgiven, as you have asked” (Numbers 14:20).
If God forgives someone – do we too have to forgive? Is forgiving the person that hurt us an obligation? Is it a Jewish commandment? And knowing how hard it is to truly forgive, how can we bring ourselves to that point? Can we forgive, but not forget? Can we forget without forgiving?
Questions of forgiveness are among the hardest questions we face.
I think that the questions of forgiveness are always relevant, but maybe this year even more so, because this year we lost a great scholar, and a great human being who taught us so much about the power and the complexity of the idea of forgiveness. I am talking about Elie Wiesel, who passed away this past July. In honor of his legacy, let’s talk about forgiveness tonight.
When Wiesel was asked the ultimate question a holocaust survivor can be asked, does he forgive the Germans? His response was always similar, “Who am I to forgive? I am not God. I cannot forgive the Germans. That’s God’s job.”
For Eli Wiesel, forgiveness was a divine attribute, literally. He understood Alexander Pope’s quote thatm “to err is human, to forgive divine.” In a literal way. For Elie Wiesel, forgiveness was challenging. And forgiving the crimes of the Nazis was not his to grant, it was God’s alone.
A similar approach to this question was given by the late Simon Wiesenthal, the well-known Austrian Nazi hunter and writer, who in his book “The Sunflower” describes a dying Nazi officer who asks for forgiveness for his crimes from the Holocaust survivor who is nursing him, he writes “forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.”
These are two harsh approaches to the question of forgiveness. A different approach can be learned by studying Christian theologians who basically claim that forgiving any offender is an obligation. They draw a direct connection between the idea that people carry with them the notion of the original sin and that they have a desire to be forgiven by God, therefore they say, “IF you wish to be forgiven by God for your sin, you must extend the same behavior to others.”
An example of this way of thought, that stretched my thinking, happened in 2014 following the horrible shooting in the Charleston Church in NC. The daughter of 70-year-old victim, Ethel Lance, addressed the shooter, who murdered her mother with these stunning words, “I forgive you… You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
This woman was able to offer forgiveness to the person who robbed her from an entire life with her mother because she believed that forgiveness is something that can and should be offered automatically out of faith and love.
I stand here tonight, sharing with you my personal struggle with these ideas. I understand that there are actions that we deem as truly unforgivable. I understand Wiesel and Wiesenthal who believe that it is only God, or the offended person, that can extend forgiveness committed against them. But at the same time, I always wanted to believe and be part of a religion that allows for healing and growth. A religion that allows me to move on beyond my anger and resentment.
I find inspiration in the words of Mahatma Gandhi:
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
I want to be strong, I refuse to live with a sense of despair and being spiritually deflated that comes from the notion of not being able to forgive.
And on the other hand, I don't want to feel obligated to forgive automatically, without holding the aggressors responsible for their actions, even if contemporary psychologists tell us that we will live happier and more meaningful lives if we are able to find the strength to forgive the ones that have hurt us.
So I want to suggest to you tonight, that there is another option. An option that allows us to authentically extend forgiveness, an option that is not limited by our ability to forgive nor by the notion that it should be offered automatically out of faith and love.
I think we need to look at Jewish concept of forgiveness as a spiritually fulfilling obligation.
If indeed, as we are taught: “For sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins committed against one another, Yom Kippur does not atone, until one appeases one’s fellow.”
Then the Jewish concept of forgiveness prohibits us to be the ones who stand between a person’s TRUE desire to repent and his ability to do so.
When we are asked to forgive and we refuse, we deny the person extending the apology his or her spiritual development, his or her ability to take responsibility for their actions, and then to commit themselves to bringing and generating good in our world.
We are taught that when we save one soul, it is as if we saved the entire world. When we destroy one soul, it is if we destroyed an entire world. When we forgive, we are engaged in the act of saving a soul. But only if this person, is truly pursuing the path of Teshuva, repentance.
BUT ONLY if the one who did wrong takes responsibility for their actions, and then commits themselves, not just to never repeat the offense, but to live a life filled with doing good and helping others.
Tomorrow we will read from the Torah the story of Joseph. The little boy whose brothers had sold him into slavery, and eventually becomes the ruler of Egypt.
When presented the opportunity to hurt his brothers he makes a choice to forgive.
We read it on Yom Kippur in hopes to be inspired so that we too can walk in his steps and model his behavior. So that we too can forgive, even those who hurt us most.
The Talmud stresses the point when we are told that:
“If the injured party refuses to forgive even when the sinner has come before him three times in the presence of others and asked for forgiveness, then he is in turn deemed to have sinned.”
Maimonides further encourages us that:
“…at the time that someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart –With a Lev Shalem and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him..."
Lev Shalem means both a heart that is whole and a heart that is at peace. It's not easy to have a whole or complete heart, especially when someone broke your heart in two and has profoundly hurt you. Maimonides asks us to dig deep in the wells of compassion, he asks that we look at the act of forgiveness as a spiritually fulfilling obligation.
On January 27, 2000, Elie Wiesel went to Berlin. He gave a speech at the Bundestag, the German parliament, for the first time. At the end of his speech, he turned to the president, and the entire government and diplomatic corps who were there and said, "Mr. President, why not ask the Jewish people for forgiveness? I'm not sure the Jewish people can accept, but why not ask?"
On February 17, 2000, President Johannes Rau went to Israel and asked Israel's parliament to forgive his nation for the Holocaust and pledged to fight a resurgence of anti-Semitism and far-right extremism in Europe.
The Israeli government, following the notion of forgiveness as a spiritual obligation, accepted Germany’s formal apology.
But, this is an example of a nation offering, and a nation accepting an apology on a symbolic level. The personal act of forgiveness is both more difficult and more challenging. For many of us sitting here tonight, carrying pain and insult, often from the people we trusted the most, it can seem impossible to forgive, to let go of a hurtful incident, to move forward leaving our pain and insult behind.
And, I say this as a person who, like every other person, has struggled to forgive all his life.
I struggled for years, until I was finally able to forgive my own beloved state of Israel that took a na�ve, full of life, young 18 year old child and sent him directly into the furnace of the first intifada, the 1stPalestinian uprising in 1987, an experience that scared me for life.
I struggled over the years to forgive childhood friends, some who don’t even know how much their words hurt me, when they expressed their disappointment with my decision to leave Israel and immigrate to the USA. And I still can’t bring myself to forgive my father in law, who has disconnected himself from our family. I stand here tonight, not as a rabbi preaching about some high concept in the sky, but as a fellow human being struggling with questions about forgiveness.
We all know about our obligation to practice “Tikkun Olam,” the repairing of the world. But only rarely do we see this as a commandment to heal our own personal world, our own relationships before we try to heal the greater world.
Jewish tradition asks us always to try to rise above anger and to help dissolve it by believing in the beauty of the world God created for us, and by remembering what we spoke about on Rosh Hashanah; that our time is limited and that we are wasting time when we allow anger and resentment to harbor in our lives.
This concept requires all the power of our imagination. It is that hard.
Despite our logical understanding that forgiving is something we do for ourselves, for our own process of healing, it still remains hard on SO MANY LEVELS and for so many reasons.
Some of us can’t accept the fact that our offender will not pay a price for their offense, others knowingly or unknowingly find themselves more comfortable in the position of being the victim. Many times we simply don’t know how to resolve the situation or we just can’t let go of the energy that feeling angry gives us. For many, it’s the fear that resolving the issue will force you to re-connect, or lose the connection, with the other person.
In order to deal with this hardship, Jewish wisdom offers another concept - the idea of MECHILA - which is the most basic kind of forgiveness.
The word might sound familiar from our prayer today, when we use both Mechila and Selicha when we ask God, in our Vidui prayer to MECHAL LANU, SELACH LANU…
Mechila means to “forgo the other's debt”
Mechila means that if the person that hurt you has seriously engaged in the process of Teshuva, and is sincere in his or her repentance, you should forgo their debt and relinquish your claim against them.
This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes you anything for whatever it was that he or she did.
Mechila is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains, only the debt is forgiven.
Mechila doesn't mean you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven.
Mechila doesn't mean you shouldn't have any more feelings about the situation.
Mechila doesn't mean there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is okay now.
Mechila doesn't mean you should forget the incident ever happened.
Mechila doesn't mean you have to continue to include the person in your life.
And most importantly, Mechila- forgiveness isn't something you do for the other person.
It’s something you do for yourself, for your ability to accept the reality of what happened and to find a way to live in a state of resolution with it.
Whether it's a spouse who was unfaithful, a parent who let you down as a child, a child who let you down as a parent, or a friend who shared something told in confidence, we all must face the question of how to forgive.
We must remind ourselves, every day, and especially today, that forgiveness is not a feeling—it’s a decision we make because we want to do what’s right before God.
It’s a decision that is never easy and will always take time to get through, especially depending on the severity of the offense.
I will conclude with the words of the Talmud, that teaches:
“The unforgiving man is not of the seed of Abraham, since one of the distinguishing marks of all of Abraham's descendants is that they are forgiving. The quality of forgiveness was one of the gifts God bestowed on Abraham and his seed.”
I pray, that as you are standing here tonight, on this Kol Nidrei night, as we enter into these 24 hours of introspection and repentance that we are able not just to ask for forgiveness, not just to acknowledge our wrongdoings in front of God and in front of those we hurt, but that we are able to connect to that spark of God within us, to reach within and do what is so hard, but so necessary, to be able to say,