Thursday, October 8, 2020

Forgive Anyway, Rosh Hashanah 20


One thing about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has always bothered me.  And that is forgiveness.  In the way we teach it – everything is about teshuvah.  Teshuvah is returning, teshuvah is repentance.  For wrong-doings, sins, committed bein-adam-limkomo, God and People, God forgives if we atone.  Bein-adam-l’chavero, between People – we must atone to them.  How do we do teshuvah?  We must recognize we’ve erred, we must find the proper way to truly fix the mend in the relationship, seek out the offended party, and when placed in the same position not sin again – and only then have we done Teshuvah properly.  We can’t send a blanket email “hey sorry if I was a jerk this year.”  Most likely, we can’t even just say “sorry” for the stuff that really matters.  And yet we are all aspring to do teshuvah.

But the other side – the forgiving, that I feel is never addressed – unless I missed that day in rabbinical school.  And that disturbs me because with as high a standard for success as teshuvah requires, it seems obvious that a lot of needed teshuvah never happens.  And then if you’re the person who was hurt – it seems like you’re stuck.  Can you forgive people who are, by our definition, “still bad?”  Are we dummies for doing that?  Are we letting ourselves be taken advantage of or failing to help the wrong doer learn an important lesson?  Where is the lesson plan about that? 

Finally, I’m going to try and figure this out – that was my thinking coming to today.  Where is the wisdom in our tradition that would guide us to answers for all these questions?

To begin with, all these questions point to something great about Judaism.  Forgiveness matters.  Tremendously.  It is a treasure that can’t be given away for nothing.  And it can be abused.  It can lead to peace of mind; it can lead to peace between aggrieved parties.  And it can also be a tool maliciously used by those who hurt and who fail to think of others. 


It is perhaps one of the sources of antisemitism as well.  We don’t forgive easily.  Because sometimes justice is necessary, not forgiveness.  Our tradition believes there is evil in the world.  That evil exists even in our failure to take things seriously if doing so leaves others in the lurch or feeling neglected or overlooked.  And so, “justice, justice” we must pursue.  Not, “forgiveness, forgiveness.” 


A number of years ago, the store of a woman called Eva Korr became well known.  She was a Holocaust survivor, a twin who survived but whose sister didn’t.  As an elderly woman, she forgave all the Nazis for what they did.  And a big deal was made of this.  In part, I think, because this fit the prevailing American, Western, Christian, way forgiveness is understood. 


Vehemently, I disagree with her.   And I believe in the maxim that any Holocaust survivor is entitled to any opinion about anything related to God, religion, or evil that they want.  But the statement she made, about which I’m sure she did thoughtfully and with consideration, came across, at least in how it was reported in a way that was wrong.  One simply cannot offer forgiveness to people for crimes they committed against other people.  And for every Nazi, every collaborator, who murdered someone, halachah confirms for us there can be no forgiveness, as the only one who could give it is dead. 


Yet on one point she was right.  True to the notion that bearing a grudge is like stabbing yourself and thinking you’ll wound the other person, a woman like Eva Korr was on to something in doing what she did.  While I believe the extent to which she went was wrong because she forgave even those she never knew and whose crimes were committed directly against others if still indirectly against her -- if what she did freed her from the death camp in which she had remained even decades after having been liberated from Auschwitz, there was value in that. There was righteousness in that for her, and that is no insignificant thing.    


As we are told in the Talmud, if we can forgive others like this, “God in turn will dismiss our sins” (Talmud Bav’li, Rosh Hashanah 17a).  In a modern context, that may well mean freeing us of whatever may stunt us and embitter us, causing us to perpetuate problems.


And our tradition also teaches, the one who strives to be a good person runs the risk of injuring herself or himself if they seek too eagerly to punish even those who deserve it. 


What then is there to learn from all this about forgiveness?  It doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten very far at all in learning anything knew. 


That it seems, is the point.  Forgiveness is an important value in Judaism.  As we started by saying, it can free us from burdens that were placed upon us and that only hold us down – this is true regardless of what the one who has hurt us does or doesn’t do. 


Yet forgiveness cannot, must not, be celebrated as the highest virtue, as the chief-most virtue. 

In our tradition, justice must stand besides forgiveness.  Not forgiving or withholding forgiveness until the right time serves both justice and forgiveness.


Additionally, our emphasis on teshuvah throughout the holidays supports this as well.  The individual may be ennobled, may be freed, by an ability to forgive.  But a society cannot be.  It must not be cruel, but it must teach responsibility towards one another as the cornerstone for survival, as the key that opens the way for God’s presence to enter the world.  That is what the emphasis on teshuvah teaches us, as hard a lesson as it may be.  We can only but live surrounded by others and constantly in relationship to them.    


We Jews are called upon, at our best, to live lives of struggle with the highest of human ideals.  This understanding of forgiveness, as important but not paramount, not when placed besides justice and responsibility, that is the lesson we must live and teach through how we live.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Tichatemu, Shabbat Shalom

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