Each year is a book. And in each book there are chapters describing the events of our lives. There are the things that we do, there are people that we love, and there are moments that stand out. This year there was a moment of extraordinary spiritual heroism. One stood out for me. It called to me and caused a great deal of reflection. I would imagine that most of you remember it vividly.
It was the response to the cold blooded murder on June 17th this year, while people prayed at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina. Nine people were gunned down by a racist murderer named Dylan Roof.
At the arraignment in court, relatives of the victims spoke.
The words spoken by Nadine Collier of Charleston, South Carolina are etched in memory:
“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you.” The pain in Nadine’s voice was audible. Her mother was one of the nine. “You hurt me,” she said to Roof, “You hurt a lot of people.” “If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
“I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess.”
Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero…May God have mercy on you.”
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
May God forgive you?
Could you say that?
I want to be honest. I don’t think I could.
Perhaps this was an act of grace that is beyond me?
I want to look at its impact. What did it mean? I know there is something to learn from this.
On this night of forgiveness and atonement I’d like to think about it.
It was a transcendent moment; a generous moment of openness and willingness forgive. It spoke to me about the potential of the human spirit.
What did it mean? In practical terms we saw something happen there, in Charleston that we did not see happen in Baltimore or in Ferguson. Because in Charleston, after the savage murders, a community came together in prayer and love. Thousands and thousands of people….black and white, Christians and Jews and Muslims brought flowers and prayers. We witnessed the power of grace.
That extension of forgiveness reverses a process of resentment and hatred; actually changes revenge into the potential for peace. For the one hurt, it allows for a certain type of freedom; the pain inflicted was bad enough. Desire for revenge and hatred could continue to burden the soul. Now it can be released.
Let’s make it clear; the expression was not in place of a desire for justice. No, justice will be pursued.
But there is a hope that the forgiveness will open a space for the perpetrator to become reflective and remorseful and repentant. And if the reality is not such, the extension of that hope changed the victims’ families, brought God into that place and averted more violence. This was a religious community.
An act of grace has the possibility of not only allowing the sinner to move towards confession and justice, but it also frees the victim’s family.
This wasn’t the first time we witnessed this. In 2006, Charlie Roberts, a truck driver – burst into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, with a handgun, and an arsenal of weapons.
He bound 10 young schoolgirls and lined them up against the blackboard. He shot all 10 girls before killing himself. Five girls died; the others were severely wounded.
In the midst of their grief the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, and they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with compassion toward the killer’s family. An Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.
It’s ironic that the killer was tormented for nine years by the pre-mature death of his young daughter. He could not forgive…He never forgave God for her death. Yet, after he cold-bloodedly shot 10 innocent Amish school girls, the Amish showed compassion and forgiveness toward his family.
In a world at war and in a society that often points fingers and blames others, this reaction was unheard of. Many reporters and interested followers of the story asked, “How could they forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent lives.”
In Amish culture people are taught to forgive one another, taught to place the needs of others before themselves, and to rest in the knowledge that God is in control and can bring good out of any situation. Love and compassion toward others is to be life’s theme. Vengeance and revenge is to be left to God. Through their faith and their act, they leave resentment behind.
And amongst our people, the mothers and sisters of Moshe Twerski, Aryeh Kupinski, Avraham Goldberg, and Kalman Levine who were brutally butchered at their Yeshiva outside Jerusalem after morning prayers offered forgiveness, in order to create a different future.
These events and their responses turn what we consider to be normal, reasonable reactions upside down.
On a grander scale after years and years of apartheid and untold suffering on the part of the blacks and coloreds of South Africa there was a Commission on Peace and Reconciliation. Victims and perpetrators sat together hearing unconscionable stories of violence and hatred, racism and oppression. And out of this grew a new South Africa, and the blood bath that so many had predicted was averted. The leadership of Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela averted a violent revolution. Reconciliation took place after victim and perpetrator faced each other and heard of the evil deeds. And the perpetrators were moved to a place of empathy for the victims. Man is capable of such evil…and also of transcendent goodness. Forgiveness is possible.
There is a book entitled “The Sunflower.” It was written in part, and edited by Simon Wiesenthal. In it he describes a scene whereby a dying Nazi asks him for forgiveness. And Wiesenthal is profoundly shaken by the situation. How could he give forgiveness for acts of ultimate evil? How could he forgive when the dead are the true victims? This would be presumptuous. How could he forgive an act of violence against God’s presence in the world? He, like so many others understood that it was not for him to forgive the Nazi. And then the question of forgiveness for future generations is addressed.
The Sunflower also contains a symposium; leading philosophers, and educators and historians responding to the situation; Jews and non-Jews, including by the way, Dr. Alan Berger.
What would you do?
We learn in our sources, and it’s quoted in our machzorim that Yom Kippur affects atonement between man and God. The Day of Atonement does not affect atonement for transgressions between people until the one who commits the injury placates the victim. The perpetrator takes the first step. There must be remorse for forgiveness.
And that’s a very different relationship with crime and violence and wrongdoing and hurt and sinfulness then the stories I mentioned.
On this day we will rise and confess a litany of sins…some of which we will recognize as having committed ourselves, and others, we will confess as a community, for all, sharing in responsibility for sin. There’s a belief and a hope that we can find atonement with ourselves, each other and God…but, we need to rise to the occasion. And to do that, we have to see ourselves in it, we take responsibility.
There’s a regular conversation I here in relation to critique. When bad behavior is pointed out, the response is, “look what THEY do.” But that’s not what teshuva is about. That’s not what tikkun is about. And it’s simply not mature. We need to look at what we do! The beginning of conflict resolution starts with looking at ourselves.
In Judaism confession and acceptance of responsibility are precursors to find forgiveness….and it’s not enough that we think it or pray for it when we have wronged another. We must also approach the other…our loved ones, family and friends, members of our communities, people we work with and even neighbors and admit our errors, ask for forgiveness and make sure the behavior is never repeated. True remorse is to be felt. And real change is required.
Part of the power of this day is that we can look at ourselves, honestly, admit that we have failed, admit that we are imperfect and move towards improvement.
There’s not a simple line between what we do and what we have seen in the incidents I brought. No, I want us to consider this deeply and see ourselves in this and try to understand where there is room for our own growth.
I love the line before Kol Nidre prayer:
Anu matirin tehitpallel im haavar—yanim – We are permitted to pray with those who transgress…
Who is that about? Is there a sinner here? Yes…it’s me, you! …all of us. We all do.
And so we enter this day in reflection and we have to do this hard work…seeing ourselves in need of forgiveness…
And that takes courage. I have made mistakes this year. Lots of them. I have hurt people. I have hurt the people, the people closest to me. I have neglected people.
And I am sorry. And need to ask for forgiveness…
But what if the person we hurt won’t forgive? What if our friend doesn’t allow for the generosity of these true spiritual heroes? Then the tradition tells us we go back to them…once, twice, three times…and if they hold on to the hurt and the grudge, then we are granted forgiveness by God. Simply put, it’s THEIR problem.
And therein is another dimension of all of this. And, at the end of the day, I think this is where our greater challenge may reside.
I see it all the time. I see it with spouses and kids and in-laws and in-laws and their daughters and sons-in-law. I see it between brothers and sisters…I see it between fellow workers. There is a nursing of old hurts and wounds that won’t permit forgiveness. Resentments and hurts are carried with pride, almost as if they give us some power…I’ll never forgive that so and so and so for what he did? And what did he do? Sometimes the answer is: Who remembers?
And so families are divided and it is felt at the most important moments of life. I see is as B’nai Mitzvah kids suffer from divorces that remain unresolved, I see it under the chuppah…and yes, I certainly see this at unveilings and funerals. I’ve been requested to do two funerals this year for the same person, because the family couldn’t sit in the same room.
A friend once said to me: Whenever my wife gets angry she gets historical! She brings up every hurt and misspoken word from the last twenty five years.
Who do we hurt, who are we helping when we can’t let go and can’t forgive.
And worse, is when hurts lead to a cycle of revenge…and then no one walks away satisfied…and hurt continues.
Forgiveness is the antidote to revenge.
There’s a meditation in the beginning of the machzor before Kol Nidre…and in it, the reader begins by saying: I forgive all of those who have hurt me and I hereby ask for forgiveness for those I have hurt. Notice the order. It may be that we need to be forgiving of others, before we can be forgiven!
There’s a model in the machzor that comes from a verse in the Torah: Vayomer adonoi Salachti kidvarecha.
God says to the people…I will forgive you as you have said.
God was so angry that he was ready to destroy the people. But he rethinks his position; and he forgives.
This day may be traditionally about our confessions and desires for forgiveness for our own wrongdoing. And that is a task. Honesty. Humility. Not so great; we’re not even good all the time! But this day also about our capacity to forgive others…and dare I say, let go.
I suggest that we have to grow this. And we have to think about our role as those who grant forgiveness…There’s been a lot of hurt, there’s a lot wrong in all of our relationships…
Tonight, let’s also consider ourselves as the ones who are capable of forgiveness. That takes power. But we have to.
And to begin, I will teach a little story from our TALMUD.
There are a number of fast days on our calendar. This is the preeminent one but in ancient Israel, if there was a drought, the entire community would be required to fast. It was understood back then that God would withhold rain based of the collective sins of the community, a fast would allow him to forgive and the rains would fall.
In one year of drought, the community turned to Rabbi Eliezer. Eliezer was one of the great rabbis of his generation, fierce in his adherence to the law, and so persuasive in argument, he had once caused a river to run backwards and a heavenly voice to proclaim him winner in an argument with his colleagues. Eliezer was surely the right one to petition on behalf of the community!
Rabbi Eliezer prepared himself. He composed extra blessings to the Holy One to favor the land with rain. On the appointed day he stood at the bimah and recited his prayers. Each one he offered with tears and supplication, each one he carefully chanted knowing that every word was like a key to unlock the skies.
He reached the end of his prayer, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the synagogue. But outside, there was no rain.
The people saw Rabbi Eliezer’s failure. At that moment his colleague and friend Rabbi Akiva cried out from his place: Avinu Malkeynu, eyn lanu melekh ella Ata. Avinu Malkeynu, assey imanu l’maan sh’mecha: Our Father, our King, we have no Sovereign but You; our Father, our King, for Your sake have mercy upon us. And says the Talmud, the rains began.
When the rabbis questioned why Rabbi Eliezer’s prayers were not heard, a Heavenly voice said that the prayer of Rabbi Akiva was answered, not because he was greater than Rabbi Eliezer, but because Rabbi Akiva was willing to forgive his enemies and Rabbi Eliezer was not.
So, as we stand in true teshuva, in repentance, we must ask ourselves, just as we seek the forgiveness of God and other people, are we forthcoming in granting forgiveness to others? Do we remain stubborn and yes, punishing with our failure to be forgiving.
Maimonides talks about the imperative to grant forgiveness in this Laws of Repentance:
It is forbidden for one to be harsh and non-appeasing. One should rather be forgiving and slow to anger, and whenever a sinner asks one for forgiveness one should grant it wholeheartedly.
It is a cliché but we recall William Shakespeare’s line, “to err may be human, to forgive is divine,” an act of imitating God.
Then we have to ask ourselves, are there things we cannot forgive? After all, can we ever really forgive the person who physically battered or sexually assaulted us? Can we forgive the drunk driver who killed a child? Can there ever really be forgiveness for those who have perpetrated murderous terrorist acts, who have participated in genocide?
Those are questions I cannot answer.
I read a few studies this year. Let me tell you about one:
Stanford University has had a Forgiveness Project it includes Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones due to terror. And you know what they found? That people can learn how to forgive, and by forgiving they can transform their own lives away from being victims to becoming the heroes in their own stories; Stories of courage and triumph in the face of pain and tragedy.
The founder of the project defines the steps which happen when we create a grievance or a grudge.
When we blame someone else for making us feel badly, hurt or rejected, we create a grievance story, which we share with anyone who will listen that shows how we were the victims in these events.
Every time we retell our grievance story, we experience the same pain or anger. This causes our brains to release stress chemicals. They make our bodies think they are under attack. People with high levels of anger and hostility and restraint experience higher blood pressure, heart disease, increased depression and hopelessness. These stress chemicals also make it less likely that we can think clearly about a situation or make good decisions. In another pain study it was found that forgiveness leads to quicker healing.
So, maintaining a grudge actually does much more harm to us than the person we are angry at. When we carry a grudge, anger or resentment what we are effectively saying that something went wrong in the past and we won’t be satisfied until the past is made right. However, that can’t happen. “Forgiveness means giving up hope that you can change YESTERDAY.” You can’t
When we maintain a grievance over long periods of time, we give the perpetrator power over our lives. We rent out real estate in our mind to the perpetrator.
It is important to understand is what forgiveness is not. It is not forgetting what happened or to “turn the other cheek.” It doesn’t require us to justify the wrong actions of someone else. It does not require that we reconcile with the other person. In this paradigm forgiveness means we no longer blame them for our own long-held reactions and emotions. And forgiveness does not mean that we give up our claims to justice or compensation.
Forgiveness, instead, “is the feeling of peace that emerges as we take our hurts less personally, takes responsibility for how we react, how we feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the stories we tell.”
The Chasidim tell a beautiful story: A rebbe and his student were walking in the forest on Shabbes. They come to a stream and there is a beautiful young woman afraid of crossing. The woman asks the rebbe to pick her up and carry her across the stream and he does so. They go their separate ways; the rebbe and his student and the beautiful young girl. After walking a while longer the student seems really down and is acting rather hostile. The rabbi asks: What is wrong with you?
The student says: I can’t believe what you did! You touched that woman; you carried her on Shabbat, all of which are violations of Torah…
And the rabbi wisely and calmly says to his student…My dear friend, I put her down hours ago…It is you who continues to carry her!
Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, the difference between those who survived the camps emotionally intact, and those who were broken was that those who survived intact assigned greater meaning to their lives, and chose their responses, instead of seeing themselves as merely victims to someone else’s tyranny.
Rabbi David Ingber co-officiated at Avi and Heather’s wedding. He taught me something which he did before the wedding. He took the family aside. He told everyone to ask forgives and forgive the bride and groom. And that was a way to being a new life and be a better partner!
So this is our challenge…to try opening our hearts and being a little more forgiving. Know that holding on will only embitter your own life.
And if you forgive…there’s a good chance, the other will move from his or her place….
The events are South Caroline was so horrible, so tragic…but the responses from religious people enabled life to move forward. The community did not rise up in violence, life will return to normal….and justice will be served…but unbelievable love was experienced.
It inspired me…and made me realize that our forgiveness is not only about our personal search to be forgiven but the challenge be forgiving of others.
May you forgive and feel forgiven.
And may that improve the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.
Gmar chatimah tovah. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of happiness, a year of life, and a year of true forgiveness, a year in which we too can say, salachti kidvarecha, I forgive you as you have asked.