Religious Life

Forgiveness – A Divine Gift

Forgiveness – A Divine Gift
Ki Tisa
18 Adar I 5779 | February 23, 2019
Rabbi Alexander Davis

It’s time for another edition of name that political apology.

Who said the following: “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career … I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me.” (Governor Northam)

How about this one: “I’m not a tribal citizen. My apology is an apology for not having been more sensitive about tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty. I can’t go back. But I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.” (Elizabeth Warren)

How about this one: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.” (Rep Ilhan Omar)

And just so we shouldn’t’ think only Democrats apologize we have this classic one: “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course, not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.” (Trump)

I don’t want to discuss any of these cases directly. What interests me and what I have been thinking about and struggling with is the question of forgiveness. What counts as a sincere apology? And when it comes to forgiveness, what is required of me? We don’t have to look at high profile cases of politicians to think of examples of forgiveness because without a doubt, each of us, in our own lives has been in the place of asking or granting forgiveness.

In part, I am drawn to this topic not just because of these high-profile cases in the news but also because it is in the parasha. The central core of our Yom Kippur liturgy is drawn from this parasha. In the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, after God threatens to walk out on the Jewish people, Moshe pleads with God not to abandon them. God agrees and is described with 13 attributes. God is merciful, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, etc. We learn that God is a forgiving God and we are to be too.

Finally, I’ll also note that while in Adar not Elul, given that Yom Kippur is sometimes considered a yom k’purim, I wanted to delve into the topic this morning.

First some context. NYU Classics Prof. David Konstan, in his philosophical study, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea, writes that forgiveness did not exist before Judaism. The ancient Greeks had something often mistaken for forgiveness, namely appeasement. But appeasement is not the same as forgiveness. Greece culture emphasized fate. In such a system, there was no place for the possibility of moral transformation central to forgiveness. Judaism, on the other hand, is a culture of choice.

According to the rabbis, the possibility of forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of creation. The description of the first day of creation concludes, “vayehi erev vayehi boker yom echad. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.” Notice, it doesn’t say, “first day yom rishon.” To what does yom echad refer? The rabbis say it refers to Yom Kippur. In other words, even before the creation of humans, the possibility of forgiveness was given to the world.  That is because God knew that no one would be perfect. Everyone would transgress. And God believed that to give humans a life full of guilt and burden with no mechanism for repentance would be tragic. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in the introduction to his Machzor, forgiveness is a divine gift: “Forgiveness is one of the most radical ideas ever to have been introduced into the moral imagination of humankind. It breaks the cycle of stimulus-response, harm and retaliation, wrong and revenge. It frees individuals from the burden of their past and humanity from the irreversibility of history. It tells us that enemies can become friends.”

If the Torah offers the world’s first recorded example of forgiveness and if it is built into creation, when does forgiveness first appear in the Torah? Not Adam and Eve, nor Cain and Abel. There is no forgiveness after the flood or the Tower of Babel or after Jacob stole the birthright. The first example of forgiveness comes in the Joseph story. Once Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he says to them, “don’t worry, it was all part of God’s plan.” They respond to him saying “Dad (Jacob) asked you to forgive us. And we hope you do.”

But if the possibility of forgiveness existed from the very outset, why does it not appear in the Torah until the end of the Book of Genesis? In the Joseph story, many things had to happen before forgiveness could be granted. The brothers had to 1) admit their guilt, 2) demonstrate remorse, 3) confess and 4) prove they had changed. When Judah stood up to protect his younger brother, Joseph knew their tshuva was complete repentance.

Beyond Joseph, I’d say that it took that long for forgiveness to appear in the Torah because forgiveness is that hard. Even if we think the person is sincere in their apology, it is still hard. We feel hurt. We don’t easily let go of the past. We want the offender to suffer. We want to see them beg. We hesitate to forgive because we worry that we are just going to end up hurt again. And on and on.

Nevertheless, we are commanded to forgive. Rambam codifies this in his Hilkhot Tshuva 2:10 writing, “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit.” Our tradition goes so far to say that one who refuses to forgive is himself a sinner.

To forgive is divine. That is the message of the oft quoted midrash on the 13 attributes of our parasha: “just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate. Just as God is loving, should you be loving,” etc. (Sifre, Deut 11:22). Just as God is forgiving, so should you be forgiving. If God is willing to be forgiving, what right do we have to withhold it. 

When we forgive, we walk in the ways of God. “When we channel this divine quality, we not only draw closer to God, we become agents of God’s compassion and love in the world” (Louis Newman, Justice and Mercy, p. 10). Not surprisingly, therefore, the rabbis say that “everyone who hurries to forgive is to be praised” (Ch. Mishpat 422).

But is it always right or necessary to forgive? I hesitate to show you this. But I did find one source, practically buried in the codes that speaks about a time when there is no forgiveness. In the Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim, The Laws of Daily Living (606:1), the Ramah writes: “one should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness (Maharil), unless it is for the benefit of the one seeking forgiveness l’tovat hamivakesh.”

What does it mean, one can withhold forgiving for “the benefit of the offender?” The Mishna Berurah refers to a case where the victim senses that the offender lacks a sufficient degree of contrition. Therefore, withholding forgiveness is meant to spur him to a fuller awareness of the gravity of his sin. At the same time, since he did ask forgiveness, the Mishna Berura says that that it should induce you to remove hatred of him from your heart.

In an additional footnote, the Mishna Berurah concludes, if one suspects that the person asking forgiveness will just repeat the wrong, he isn’t obligated to forgive him (606:11).

As I said, I hesitate to show this to you these sources because they could easily be abused. It would be very easy to justify your unwillingness to forgive saying, “I am not going to forgive her and it’s for her own good.” Not surprisingly, therefore, the Mishna Berurah concludes, “all that being said, the humble person should forgive even in these cases.”

You and I could probably think of many crimes which seem unforgivable. But in Jewish thought, the overwhelming sense you get is that the door to tshuvah remains ever open, and therefore, the possibility of forgiveness must ever be available.

I want you to notice that in the Joseph story and here in the Rama, forgiveness is conditional. One forgives on condition that the transgressor does tshuvah. Prof. Louis Newman in his article “Justice and Mercy” that appeared in the Journal of Religious Ethics explains, “Only when we take responsibility to ensure that transgressors are brought back in line—first by rebuking them and then by withholding our forgiveness until they reform their ways—can we make this society a place in which respect for legal and moral norms is reinforced. And so forgiveness cannot be a duty in cases where the offender has not first acknowledged his offense and taken steps to rectify it. …offering forgiveness to those who have not earned it would encourage transgressors, undermine social norms, and abrogate our duty to chastise those who violate the law.”

I should probably leave it there. But I want to at least mention a different approach to forgiveness. Conditional forgiveness says if he earns my trust through complete repentance, I’ll forgive him. But there is another strand in Jewish sources that suggests that we forgive even those who have not repented. This unearned forgiveness is meant to inspire a generous and humble spirit in the forgiver and give the offender a chance to begin again. Newman writes, “unconditional forgiveness represents an offer to restore the moral standing of the offender as a gift, whether as a show of solidarity or as an effort to emulate God’s boundless love. By responding to the offender’s moral failure with an excess of moral generosity, this act of forgiveness communicates a powerful message to the offender: “Your moral failings notwithstanding, we affirm your moral worth.”

I find that approach challenging. Newman, in his article compares and contrasts earned and unearned forgiveness and discusses why both have value. “The key point, he writes, “is that both types of forgiveness transform offenders, the first by “holding their feet to the fire,” so to speak, and the second by lifting them out of the moral pit into which they have fallen when they cannot climb out on their own power.

I will leave it for another time to further explore the theory of forgiveness in Jewish law and thought. For now, I’d like to conclude with a story about politics and tshuvah and forgiveness. I came across this past week on President’s Day when reading about Lincoln.

On December 17, 1862, during the Civil War, General Grant issued the following order for his military district of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from this department within 24 hours from the receipt of this order.” The order was issued as part of a Union campaign against a black market in Southern cotton, which Grant thought was being run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.”

This mandate to expel Jews from America is referred to as General Order 11. Not surprisingly, it confirmed to Grant’s antisemitic inclinations and his pattern of associating Jews with illicit business activities. In the end, only about 100 Jews were actually expelled. But for a few weeks, it terrorized and infuriated the Union’s entire Jewish population. It also inspired one of the community’s first effective lobbying campaigns. Jewish newspapers compared Grant to Haman. A delegation of Jewish leaders traveled to the White House to protest directly to the president, who quickly but quietly had the order revoked, eager to right a wrong but reluctant to humiliate a valuable military commander.

In 1868, Grant did issue a letter stating that the General Order 11 was “issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race. . . . I have no prejudice against sect or race.” Prof Jonathan Sarna, in his study of the episode, notes that this response was weak and “self-serving.” It was neither an admission nor an apology. It was motivated as much by politics as regret. At the time, Grant was running for president. But to his credit, he continued to evolve.

Grant made amends and the Jews forgave. As president, Grant appointed Jews to official posts, welcomed Jewish delegations, supported Jewish relief efforts in Europe and once attended a worship service at a Washington synagogue, the first president to do so. When he died, Jews mourned him as a hero. As president, he became in Sarna’s estimation, one of the greatest friends to Jews in American history.

Tshuvah and selichah, repentance and forgiveness hand-in-hand make transformation possible.
May we be blessed with the ability to grow and change, to give and receive forgiveness.

Shabbat Shalom.