Will I Be Forgiven…Will I Forgive Others?

Mahatma Gandhi The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Kosher Fitness is supposed to be about Judaism and Fitness…so you may be wondering what the connection to forgiveness is.

Fitness and health don’t just refer to our physical being; it also means being spiritually and emotionally sound. No small part of mental illness is related to an inability to forgive others–hanging on to anger and disappointment–or an inability to receive forgiveness–or feel that we are unworthy of it.

This has been on my mind a lot since reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This true story follows the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete whose plane was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. He underwent an ordeal that most of us would not have come close to surviving; he saw terrible cruelty that was reminiscent of what was happening in concentration and death camps throughout Europe at the same time. After the war, he was able to find a way to forgive those who had done him so much harm; it was a way for him no longer to be controlled by them.

I learned about this in a class for rabbis many years ago that focused on anger. The teacher asked: Would you tolerate a renter in your home who never paid the rent? We answered: No. What if the person was loud and made noise at all hours of the day and night? Again, we answered: No! What if this person trashed their room and did damage to your home too? We answered: No way! And yet, our teacher pointed out, that is what many of us metaphorically do. We allow others to live in our heads rent-free, harassing us, giving us no piece and making a mess of our lives. One of the ways that we can “evict” them is by finding a way to forgive them. It is an act we do not so much for them, as for ourselves.

This is a very Jewish way of looking at things as well. Every year at the High Holidays we focus not only on the sins we may have committed against God, but also the ways in which we may have hurt or offended others around us. We should seek forgiveness from the Lord (only after we have done everything possible to rectify the situation), but we must also be willing to forgive others and ourselves. Every year, we engage in this process so that the hurt, estrangement and emotional pain do not fester. It is not easy, but it is rewarding and a HEALTHY thing to do.

Of course, this is also on my mind when I think about the heightened awareness in our nation around racial injustice. We have a system of justice that is broken; it does not treat everyone the same. Those with privilege (read, white skin) have much greater access to justice than people of color. It is a sad reality and it is long overdue that we deal with this.

Where does forgiveness fit in here? All of us have made mistakes. We have been insensitive. We have been unaware. We have looked the other way. This is true even for those of us who consider ourselves champions of justice and equality. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we cannot know what we do not know. But ignorance is no excuse. We have heard the cry of the oppressed (knowing what it is like to be oppressed since we commemorate it each year at Passover), and now we must act.

Are our past mistakes forgivable? Can we be released from the guilt of centuries of injustice–in which we have participated either wittingly or unwittingly?

A good Jewish answer: it depends. First, there is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. The first we are bidden to do, the second forbidden. Memory is essential to prevent the repetition of past wrongs. Second, certain sins cannot be forgiven: murder, sexual molestation, genocide, etc. The Talmud teaches that God Godself will deal with those who have committed these crimes. It is outside of human hands. For example, I cannot forgive the Nazis for murdering my great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; the ones who would need to forgive were turned to ash and rest now in shallow pits in Europe. I leave this forgiveness (if it exists) to God.

This still leaves us a lot of room for our own personal interactions. When we wrong someone or offend them, when we are insensitive, when we fail to see the suffering of others…what should the reaction be? Is there room for forgiveness from others? What about when we are at the receiving end? Can we forgive?

Sometimes there is a vibe out there that when someone makes a mistake (not out of meanness, but out of ignorance or lack of sensitivity) that this person must be destroyed. Fire him! Ban her for life! We won’t be happy until that person is reduced to dust!

There is an expression (wrongly attributed to Ghandi, but it sounds like something he might have said) that says “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Is the goal when someone “sins” to crush them? The prophet Ezekiel taught that the Lord does not delight in the death of the sinner, but rather that the wicked repent of his/her ways.” Instead of trying to destroy a person, are there opportunities for teaching and learning? Can we help them repent? Can we turn enemies or bystanders into allies?

It is not for me to dictate to others how to carry out a movement for racial justice. I only hope that there is room for listening…for atonement…for teaching…for compassion…and forgiveness. I know that I have not done as much as I should in the past–and even now; I understand that this should be met with righteous indignation, but I also hope it is accompanied by help and guidance. This is the Jewish concept of Justice AND Mercy.

These are Jewish values but also human values. We live in a society that is unwell; the fever is getting worse, but there are signs of healing as well. I want to be part of the healthy nation that will emerge. I hope that I am up to that challenge and will prove a worthy ally.

Not every sin is forgivable. My hope is that all of us will find the spaces where we can forgive without forgetting.

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