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On Forgiveness

by Rabbi James Prosnit

Kol Nidre 2015/5776

It was the Sunday evening after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. We were gathering at First Church Congregational for an inter-faith prayer service; a vigil where candles would be lit, psalms recited and people could just gather to share their shock and their grief.

A few minutes before the service was to begin Rabbi Schultz came to me with a concern. His assignment, along with Father Charlie Allen from Fairfield University was to read the names of the victims. He noticed that on the list he had been given was the name Adam Lanza. I went to my friend and colleague and minister of First Church Rev. David Spollett and said that neither Evan nor I was comfortable with reading that name alongside the names of the children and their teachers. David, said, he was a victim too; A victim of family, schools, society that never adequately addressed his obvious mental turmoil and illness. We agreed to convene a quick caucus of the eleven members of the clergy who were to lead the service. ¬After a brief conversation –it was clear that the seven priests and ministers felt the name should be read – and all four rabbis felt otherwise.

I thought of that moment again this summer after the shootings at AME Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. On one hand, we once again witnessed a horrific mass shooting, but in addition we saw the reaction of the survivors and the church elders and we heard words of forgiveness directed to the gunman. While I was moved by those expressions of forgiveness I wondered if I could ever be so charitable and I wondered if Jewish tradition would have expected me to be so.

Now, I realize, the two incidents are different, on several levels – the Fairfield Clergy folk s were not forgiving the shooter by including his name – and the Charleston church was not absolving Dylann Roof of blame for his rage and hatred. But still I’m left to wonder if there is something at the core of these two incidents that that show Christians and Jews have differing attitudes when it comes to understanding evil, forgiving sins and the place of reconciliation. Is there something core to our teachings, to our history that leads us in different directions?

I thought tonight might be a good time and place to begin to think that through with you. And while I dare say our sins do not include such gravity of deed, the question of who, when and how to forgive is center to our liturgy and our yearnings on this most sacred of days.

At the heart of Christian faith maybe what according to Christian scripture are Jesus’ final words. ”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Words that according to the gospel, Jesus said, not after resurrection, but at the very moment when he was dying at the hands of the……. (we’ll that’s another sermon).

Is that the faith of the Charleston church, that first welcomed the killer into its midst and then forgave him. “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of one victim said. “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said the sister of another. “I pray God on your soul.” These examples of extreme grace may have power and appeal? But do they reflect our tradition and moreover could we have ever rise to that level of magnanimity.

For a closer look let me turn first to a book that some of you know titled the Sunflower. It was written by Simon Wiesenthal the famed Nazi hunter and was first published in 1969. In subsequent years it has been revised and added to with the wisdom and perspective of many scholars, theologians and writers from across the religious world.

At the center of the story is Wiesenthal’s own moral dilemma. As a concentration camp inmate during the Shoah, a German Red Cross nurse instructed him to follow her to a hospital, a building converted from the high school where Wiesenthal had not too long before received his diploma. Trained to be an obedient prisoner, he complied and was led in his rags to the private quarters of a dying German officer. Totally bandaged except for small openings for ears, nose and mouth and with little time to live, the officer wanted to confess his crimes to a Jew, be forgiven and die in peace. Wiesenthal, who ironically survived German ‘selections” before, was again selected as the Jew for the job. Without the power to refuse, Wiesenthal reluctantly listened as the young SS man told his story. I will not go into the atrocities committed, but it had to do with hundreds of Ukrainian Jews being herded into a home and it being set on fire.

The officer was eventually critically wounded and now on his death bed confided to the Jew, his actions, and said his pangs of conscience hurt worse than the physical sufferings he now faced. After the confession and request for forgiveness, the story ends as Wiesenthal silently rose and left the room.
But the Sunflower does not end there. In the remainder of the book forty six leading scholars attempt to answer the question – was his silence at the bedside of the dying man right or wrong. Of the forty six, thirty wrote they would have followed Wiesenthal and would not have forgiven him. Of the other sixteen most were not Jewish.

Father Hesburgh former President of Notre Dame, wrote he would forgive because God would forgive. Dith Pram, Cambodian survivor of the Killing Fields wrote he could not forgive Pol Pot, in eyes analogous to Hitler, but he could forgive an ordinary soldier. And the Dalai Lama wrote, I believe one should forgive the person, persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind. He wrote of his conversation with a Buddhist monk who had spent 18 years in a Chinese prison. What was the biggest threat or danger to you while in prison, the Dalai Lama asked. And the monk replied that what he feared most was losing his compassion for the Chinese.

As counter point many of the Jewish respondents asserted that Jewish wisdom contends that moral debts are too personal to be transferable. The classic Jewish view is that a person who harms another must first ask forgiveness from his victim then show a willingness to change and not repeat past behaviors. Only then should the victim forgive.

But Rabbi Harold Kushner author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and a host of other books, was one of the few Jewish authors who reflected ambivalence. And it’s an ambivalence I share. He acknowledged the standard Jewish theological position that Wiesenthal had neither the power nor the right to forgive the German soldier, but recommends forgiveness because continued resentment causes too much harm to the victim. In some respects his recommendation to Wiesenthal the prisoner, was more in line with the expressions of the Charleston church members. He suggested saying to the Nazi, “What you did was thoroughly despicable and puts you outside the category of decent human being. But I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim. I refuse to let your blind hatred define the shape and content of my life. I don’t hate you; I reject you.”

We saw this first hand earlier this summer when 70 years after, Eva Kor a survivor of Auschwitz embraced Oskar Groenig, the just convicted 94 year old former SS officer and so called “accountant of Auschwitz. She was criticized by many others but explained, “the victim has a right to be free, you cannot be free from what was done to you unless you remove from your shoulder the daily burden of pain and anger and forgive.. – not because they deserve it, but because I deserve it.”

Seen this way, forgiveness is not something soft or passive. It demonstrates spiritual maturity, strength of character, depth, discipline and steadiness. It is the sign of a determined faith, fighting against every natural human inclination. “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of one of the Charleston victims. But “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”

In this way, Forgiveness becomes a form of freedom — a refusal to be ruled by anger or resentment. It is like laying a burden down.

The stories from the Shoah or Charleston or Newtown are a dramatic end to a spectrum of challenges when it comes to the topic of forgiveness. But while these philosophical discussions may be fuel for thought I also know that for many of us, for all of us forgiveness is a very personal issue. Issues of forgiveness are identifiable in our own lives. We would be squandering some opportunities that Yom Kippur provides if we intellectualize the discussion any further. Part of tonight’s message must be to think about those who have wronged us or who we may have wronged and to take that message to heart. Some of us are dealing with mega-grievances and others more petty grudges; but either way they weigh us down and are unsettling.

I meet families all the time where relationships have soured, friendships have been tattered because the initial hurt as legitimate as it may have been has grown ever deeper because of pride or stubbornness. On many occasions I enter a family’s world at a life passage only to be told of some long festering dynamic that has turned into a full blown feud. Sometimes people even forget the initial cause of the separation. My mother and her brother never got a long. Growing up I rarely saw my first cousins. When my sister remarried a decade or so ago, she decided to invite them to her wedding. Three of the four came. They were lovely people. We realized that there was no need to pass whatever existed between our parents down through the generations.

While I am not naïve and know that some breaches are too chiasmic to be resolved, I also know that many could be healed if someone just was willing to take the first sincere step and say, “I’m very embarrassed and I’m not sure I even know why, or what to do, but I need, somehow, to make things better between us.” Could a heartfelt conversation ensue that actually gets to the core issues of the estrangement. Perhaps!

But even if it is too late for resolution and the gap too wide to be bridged, letting go of anger and hurt may in the end be the healthiest thing. Rabbi Kushner tells the story of the divorced mother of three who comes to see him. Since my husband walked out on us every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him? Kushner answers,

I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you bitter and angry.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman writes, “As a matter of practical wisdom: holding onto grudges just exacerbates conflict; starting all over again is just better policy. Or, if not that, we might (4) pardon just for our own well-being, because therapy (perhaps) has convinced us that keeping resentments and grudges alive corrodes our souls and gives the aggressors their second victory long after the immediate hurt of the aggressive act itself.”

So far this has been about horizontal forgiveness – person to person stuff; I also think it is not all that far removed from alienation and disconnection with the Divine. The vertical piece of forgiveness that we seek on this night.
It is significant that when we turn to the confessionals in our Yom Kippur liturgy that we read a little earlier and will turn to a few times tomorrow that nowhere in our prayers is there a confession for a ritual failure. It is always for a failure of ethic or relationship. No place in our new or old machzor or in an Orthodox machzor for that matter, will you find Al Chet shechatanu l’fanecha…. For the sin of working on the Sabbath; or the sin of eating pasta on Pesach or even for not fasting on this Day of Atonement. That does not mean that ritual failures are not examples of missing the mark in the eyes of God. Observance of Shabbat and Passover and Yom Kippur are an essential part of Jewish life and are crucial to our continuity as a people; it’s just that on this day we’ve got bigger failings to address.

Perhaps with our new book in hand this year we can be less rote in our confessional and more intentional; considering what the words really mean. In the quiet moments of this long day I hope we’ll meditate on some of them, because in truth in the lists before us there are very few that we have not committed. Where has my arrogance and ego and pettiness led me. How have my bigotries and prejudices affected by view of community or my work place. Has my cynicism contributed to an alienation from God?

Al chet .. For our failures of integrity; for distorting facts to suit our purposes; for blaming others for our mistakes; for lashing out in anger at those who are closest to us; for gossip and rumor; for failing to forgive those who have sought forgiveness; and maybe even have I failed to consider forgiving those who are in my power to forgive even if they have not approached me.

And one more additional – have I been willing to forgive myself.
For when it comes right down to it, I believe that the essence of this night is not in a horizontal direction. Yes it is good to ask others for forgiveness and grant forgiveness to those who request it from us. And it is not vertical, although so many of prayers are directed to God on High! No, the direction that matters most this night is inward. Are we willing to address ourselves and forgive ourselves, because even though we may well know what it is that we do; on this night we ask ourselves to cut us a little slack. To say that God forgives is not really a statement about God, about God’s emotional state. God’s forgiveness is something that happens inside us, not inside God. It is we who with God’s help, must free ourselves from the shame of the past so that we can be better people in the future.

Let me conclude with a poem by Rabbi Karyn Kedar

Perpetual Crossings
I walk softly on the damp wooded path.
Mostly I look down
and see the ground beneath my feet is
soft earth, gentle moss,
and, of course, fallen leaves, which
like angels, have floated to earth
to form a path. A gently lit path in the woods.
And for every chasm along the way,
for every fast-moving stream or deeply cut valley,
a bridge appears.
It seems that there is always
a way across,
a way to get to the other side of fear, of sadness, of disappointment.
There is always a way.
Maybe goodness is the bridge, or beauty is the bridge.
Love is the bridge.
Forgiveness is the bridge.
Of this I am sure:
the path is eternal – it is our life and the length of our days.
And the bridge is eternal –
there are many ways to cross what seems impossible.
Stones in the river, ropes suspended, planks of wood,
arches of steel like love, patience, acceptance,
and forgiveness.
From The Bridge to Forgiveness

Wiesentahal,Simon, The Sunflower, Revised and Expanded Edition 1997, Shocken Books New York
Ibid p. 164
Ibid p. 222
Ibid p.130
Ibid p. 183 ff
Read more:
Wiesenthal, 186
Kedar, Karyn, The Bridge to Forgiveness, Jewish lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, p.143