On this sacred night, when we stand before G-d and ask G-d to forgive us, I am going to talk about how important it is that forgive others. Our tradition teaches that only if we are willing to forgive others is G-d willing to forgive us. I am going to talk about three reasons that we ought to forgive others. Before I do that, I am going to share with you two surprising instances of forgiveness. We are going to see what these can teach us about what forgiveness is and what forgiveness is not.
“The most beautiful thing a person can do is to forgive”, wrote Eleazar Ben Yehudah, the founder of Modern Hebrew. That beauty was on full display last June as some of the relatives of the nine people killed during Bible Study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina confronted the killer of their loved ones at his bond hearing. Relatives the victims stunned the world, when, with tears in their eyes, they offered forgiveness to the killer. The daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the victims of the shooting said, “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to [my mother] ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And [may God] have mercy on your soul.” Anthony Thompson, a relative of another victim, faced the perpetrator and urged him to repent of his action. Then he added, “I forgive you and my family forgives you.”
The classic Jewish formulation of forgiveness comes from the rabbinic text called The Talmud. “G-d forgives sins committed against Him, but sins against one’s fellow human beings must first be forgiven by the injured party.” This means that in the matter of ritual transgressions – a person has eaten a food forbidden by Jewish law, or has violated the Sabbath in some way – we may ask G-d directly for forgiveness, and it will be granted. But in matters where a person has committed a transgression against another, that person’s forgiveness must be asked, and restitution, if possible, must be made.
Almost nine years ago, a 32 year old married father of two walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, shooting ten girls and killing five of them before taking his own life. The mother of that deranged man, Terri Roberts, lived in the community. Her first thought was that she would have to move away. But members of the Amish community came to her that night and urged her to stay. Some of the victims’ family attended her son’s funeral. The parents of two of the girls who lost their lives were among the first to greet her following the burial of her son. That is what compassion and forgiveness look like when put into practice.
Terri Roberts ended up staying in the community. For the past nine years she has been going every Thursday to the home of one of the most seriously wounded girls to take care of her. It is, perhaps, her way of making some restitution for the horrible act of her son. Think of that – Terri Roberts is the mother of the man who committed this horrible crime, and the parents of one of the victims allowed her into their home to care for their daughter. This is what forgiveness and restitution look like.
It is difficult to forgive someone who has wronged us. Yet, as we can see in both the example of the South Carolina Church and the Amish schoolhouse, as difficult as it may be, it is possible even in the most extreme of circumstances. What do they know that they can teach us about forgiveness?
The first lesson that they can teach us is that forgiveness is not about forgetting. Unimaginable pain, like the murder of a loved one, does not just disappear. They know that forgiveness is not about excusing; forgiveness is not about denying; forgiveness is not about minimizing suffering or harm. They know that forgiveness is not about reconciling with the offender. It is not about reunion with the offender, or establishing a relationship with the offender. Forgiveness is not about giving up their right to be angry. Those who forgive retain their right to be angry, but they use that anger differently, they use that anger wisely.
Forgiveness is about giving up the right to revenge. Forgiveness means giving up the right to retaliate against the perpetrator, of, if the perpetrator is dead, to retaliate against their family. The Amish could have driven Terri Roberts out of the community had they wished to. They could have punished her for what her son did. But the community made it clear that they were not about to take revenge on her son by mistreating his mother.
Forgiveness in this case also means letting go of the bitterness, the resentment, and the hostility toward the perpetrator and his family. One Amish farmer put it this way, “The acid of bitterness eats the container that holds it.” Forgiveness does not mean that there should be no punishment for the crime. Had the killer survived, the Amish would have wanted him locked up, but not for revenge. They would want him locked up in order to pay for his crime and to keep the community safe.
We have just looked at what forgiveness is, and what it is not. Now I am going to tell you three reasons why it is important to forgive. The first reason we should forgive is because we cannot allow the actions that others took in the past to have control over our lives and affect our emotional and physical health in the present. We cannot afford to waste our energy being trapped in anger over what others did to us in days gone by. Holding onto resentment and bitterness and failing to forgive can tie us to a person who we ought to have left in the past long ago.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of how a woman once came to him, and poured out her anger against her husband. “Do you know what he did to me?” she said. “I got him through medical school and then he left me and married that no good floozie of a nurse?” And she went on and on and on, telling him in gory detail how he had mistreated her and how he had neglected the children and how he had to be pressured to pay the children’s tuition, and so on and so forth.
Finally, Rabbi Kushner got tired of listening to this tirade, and so he interrupted her, and he said, “I think you should let it go.” And she said, “What????? I should let it go, after what he did to me?”
The Rabbi said, “Yeah – you should let it go – not for his sake, but YOURS. Because, for ten years now, you have been holding a hot coal in your hand, waiting for your ex to walk by so that you could throw it
at him. And for ten years now, he has been living a happy life with his new wife and you have been burning your hand. Isn’t it time that you put the coal down, and got on with your life?”
The second reason that we should forgive is because we are in need of forgiveness ourselves. When I used to do marriage counseling a couple would come into my office and I would ask them each to describe the problem they were having. The wife would then recite a list of everything her husband did wrong. When it was the husband’s turn, he would recite his own list of all of his wife’s shortcomings. Then I would ask the wife what she may have contributed to the problems they are experiencing. Silence. Then I would ask the husband what she may have contributed to the problems they were experiencing. Silence. You see, it is human nature to remember all of the times that we have been hurt by others, but we tend to repress or ignore or be unaware of all of the times that we have hurt others. We tend to make excuses or rationalize away our own behavior, all the while holding accountable anyone who has slighted us in the least! But we are not aggrieved innocents, none of us – we too are people who have gone astray, we too have done wrong, even if we do not see it.
If we do tend to rationalize, if we do tend to minimize, if we do tend to explain away our own hurtful behavior, how, then, can we become aware of what we have done? The Torah teaches that we have an obligation to our fellow to tell them when they have wronged us. So when somebody hurts us, our tradition says that we need to sit down with them, face to face, and have a conversation about that. When we do that, we will often find that the other person feels hurt as well! It is not easy to hear that we have wronged another person – especially if we consider ourselves the injured party! Yet, what alternative do we have other than to talk it out? To NOT say something means that we will end up carrying around our resentment. When we fail to speak to one another, what happens then? We unload our pain on others, and tell them about what was done to us! This is engaging in Lashon HaRah – spreading gossip. So the second reason we should forgive is that we too need to be forgiven. If we want others to forgive us, we need to be willing to forgive them.
The third reason that we should forgive is that people change. I know a person who had a drug problem when he was a teen. In order to support his habit, he stole things. He had a friend named Sonny. One day he was over at Sonny’s house, and he stole some jewelry from Sonny’s mother. Many years later he received an angry message from Sonny on Facebook. Sonny berated him, he said, you know, my mother died and you can never ask forgiveness from her for what you did. You are an awful person! You are scum of the earth. The person replied, “You are absolutely right when you describe everything that I did. I am also not that person anymore…”
This is a very simple and poignant response, and speaks to the power of Teshuvah, of repentance. Maimonides says that when we do true repentance, we leave the past behind and it is as if we are born anew. Sonny was hanging on, for years, to anger and bitterness over what his friend did when he was younger. People don’t stay the same – we all grow, we all change, we all mature. What sense does it make to hold on to anger over something that happened years ago? Who knows how many relationships between brothers and sister, between children and parents, between good friends, have been strained or ended because of something that happened in the distant past? We need to let it go.
May we all find a burial place in our hearts where we can lay to rest all of the wrongs that we have suffered. May we unburden ourselves from the dead weight of un-forgiven injuries. This is truly the path to the freedom, peace and wholeness we all seek in our lives. For forgiveness can heal the broken heart, allow us to love again, renews us, and give us a fresh start.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah