Is it easy to forgive?

Rabbi René’s sermon for Kol Nidre 5782

The great Oscar Wilde once said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much”. And he knew what he was talking about, a gay man in the stifling Victorian society.

Forgiveness is at the heart of this time of the year. As a gateway into our reflection tonight, I’d like to tell you two stories.

The first story is told of the Rabbi of Brisk, the Yiddish name for Brest-Litovsk, once a major Jewish centre in Lithuania, who was travelling home on the train. He was riding with a group of Jews who were playing cards very loudly, probably inebriated with vodka. They asked him either to join them, or to leave the carriage. When the Rabbi did not comply, one of them removed the scholar from his place to a seat in another carriage.

When the train arrived at Brisk, the Sage and this very man left the train. Hundreds of people were waiting to greet their Rabbi, and the man was mortified to see that he acted so harshly against a Torah scholar. He tried to ask forgiveness, but his request was denied. He tried again and again, and finally he made contact with the Rabbi’s son and begged him for help.

The boy, very surprised by his father’s uncharacteristic behaviour, promised to do whatever possible. He visited his father, and they discussed the law of forgiveness. When they’ve reached the point where the Law says that a person must not turn away someone asking his forgiveness more than three times, the son said, ‘what about so and so? He’s asked you to forgive him many times, and yet, you denied him forgiveness?’

The father replied, ‘Him? I cannot forgive him because he didn’t offend me, the Rabbi of Brisk. He offended the simple Jew he took me to be. He must ask forgiveness from a simple Jew’.

The second story depicts a king and his son. One day, they quarrelled so bitterly that the king exiled his son to a distant country. In time, the king’s anger receded, and he sent his ministers to find his son and ask him to come back. When they found him, he said to his father’s emissaries, ‘My heart is too broken, my father hurt me deeply, I cannot return just now’. Upon hearing this, the king said, ‘tell my son the following: return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way’.

In the first story, the man, probably embarrassed, showed no sign he would change his behaviour. He was embarrassed for having been caught, but not for his action. In the second, the king showed remorse and his readiness to change but his willingness to meet halfway his son.

Forgiveness is a complex phenomenon. It involves deep emotions, and challenges our capacity to change, and our resistance to do so. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Ten Days of Repentance that started on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is the climax, when everything is written down in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. Yom Kippur is the deadline. All accounts must be settled at that time.

The Mishnah says, “Despite the fact that the offender who caused damage gives to the victim all the required payments for the injury, his transgression is not forgiven for him in the heavenly court until he requests forgiveness from his victim” (Bava Kamma 92a).

In other words, a person asking for forgiveness must show evidence of being truly repentant. Our tradition stresses the importance of intention. When the king meets his son half-way, he expresses by his acts his intention to repair his relationship with him. An empty apology does not lead to forgiveness.

Maimonides, the great Medieval Andalusian Rabbi and physicist, wrote a text about repentance and forgiveness that contains to this day the essence of our tradition’s teachings on the matter.

“Teshuva and Yom Kippur atone only for transgression between a human being and God, such as one who eats forbidden food, or has a forbidden sexual relationship. But transgressions between human beings and their fellows, such as hurting one’s fellow, or cursing, or stealing from them, those are never forgiven until one gives one’s fellow what is owed to them, and the fellow is appeased. Even if he returned the money he owed him, he must appease his fellow and ask forgiveness. Even if the fellow was only abused verbally, one must make amend and meet with one’s fellow until forgiveness is granted. If a human being does not wish to forgive, they must bring three people with them and ask forgiveness. If forgiveness is not granted, they must approach a second and a third time. But if this person does not give in, they should leave him alone, and this person who did not forgive becomes the sinner” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 2: 9).

It may come as a surprise that offenses committed against another human being are not atoned for at Yom Kippur. Atonement, kapparah in Hebrew, is a total wiping away of all wrongdoings. It is the ultimate form of forgiveness that only God can grant, provided we truly seek atonement.

The most basic form of forgiveness is mechilah, forgoing the other’s indebtedness. That is the forgiveness Maimonides is talking about. If a person truly regrets a wrong that has been done, the offended should offer mechilah. The crime is not erased, only the debt is forgiven. Jewish forgiveness is not easy forgiveness. It can only be granted if the offender asks for it with all his heart. There is no forgiveness if there is no true repentance.

The third kind of forgiveness is selichah. It is a true act of the heart, a reaching out to the other person, meeting the other mid-way, as did the king in our story. It is also recognising that both the offender and the offended are human, therefore frail and weak, but also capable of changing their ways.

If I were to stop my Kol Nidrei D’var Torah here, it would be an interesting lesson in Jewish theology on forgiveness, but we would miss the actual point. Maimonides the Rabbi tried to establish clear procedures for a movement of the heart that cannot be reduced to a legislative process. There is more, much more. There is pain, suffering, injustice, trauma. And Maimonides himself acknowledges the power of words. Without words, there is no healing. Without a space for listening to each other, there is no prospect of restoration. Forgiveness is about real-life situations, not an intellectual exercise in Halakhic proceedings.

Some of you may know that I am currently dealing with a very difficult situation in my family. My capacity to forgive has been tested by someone who hurt a loved one to a point that she is now spending much time trying to recover from many traumas inflicted to her. I feel furious and at the same time powerless. How can we protect our loved ones from evil people? And what to do with all this anger? The offender is in denial, and there is no room for teshuva, at least for now. I have contemplated this text from Maimonides, explored my feelings as we entered the High Holy Days season, thought about what I wanted to talk about tonight, and I came to the conclusion that I am not ready to forgive. I cannot forgive in place of my loved one who has suffered so much, and I cannot forgive someone who doesn’t seek forgiven. Where does this leave me? Have I failed my duties as a Jew and as a human being? Maybe more time is needed?

I know that this experience is not unique to me. I know that maybe, tonight, some of you are struggling with the same issues and asking themselves the same questions: am I ready to forgive, and if I am not, am I a bad person?

I would propose that you to take a moment for yourselves, to think about these unfinished businesses that we carry in our minds. It doesn’t need to be that traumatic, but we can be sometime in the skin of the offender, or in the skin of the offended. When a situation lingers, it grows, it rots inside us and leaves no room for better experiences. We need to do something about it, or we risk losing something precious. What can we do to free ourselves?

If you remember what I said on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, healing is in the return. We cannot avoid pain, but we can choose how to respond to it. We can choose to avoid inflicting pain on the others. We can also choose to forgive, simply because it will free us. But the return is a process. It takes time, sometimes it cannot be achieved at all. But at least, we must try.

I would like to finish with a quote from Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor. Collectively, the Shoah, as any other form of persecution, is probably the biggest test to our capacity to forgive. I’ve worked with many Auschwitz survivors, and as you can imagine, their responses were very different, yet unique, and all valid. For us, who witnessed their trauma, silence was the only response.

Eva Mozes Kor said,

“On January 27, 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I stood by the ruins of the gas chambers with my children while I read my document of forgiveness and signed it. As I did that, I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free.

The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them, mine couldn’t. And then, I forgave myself from hating my parents.

Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works, and has no side effect”[1].

It took Eva 50 years to reach this understanding that forgiveness is an act of self-healing, that it works. We are not asked to turn the other cheek. It is legitimate to ask for reparation, for acknowledgement, but eventually, in order to heal, we need to move on and to leave the wrongs done to us where they belong, into the past.