Yom Kippur 2019

Drash, Yom Kippur 2019—Karen Bovarnick, Social Hall

Ever feel pressure to forgive someone—guilt that you cannot do it? Why is it so hard? What gets in the way?

Today I want to talk about forgiveness and teshuva in different contexts that illustrate why it is difficult and how our motivation to resolve these questions, quickly, sometimes causes us to judge others rather than to look inward.

To try to identify and appreciate some of the impediments to forgiveness, I started to think about how these issues played out in three different contexts–genocide, criminal justice, and then…there’s my mother. (Actually, my mother is no longer a good example, but think of a dispute with your siblings, your in-laws, or even a deep but hidden hurt by your best friend—in other words a close personal relationship where the conflict hits to the core). Can you guess which of these contexts is the most challenging for us . . . which seems the most intractable?

So, let’s start with what appears, on its face, to be the most extreme context to provide forgiveness—post-conflict reconciliation after a genocide. Having been to South Africa, worked with Cambodian refugees, and just this past summer, having spent time in the former Yugoslavia—this context has been on my mind for a while. I recently saw a documentary film called The Silence of Others about a Spain’s amnesty law passed in 1977. It was referred to as the “pact of forgetting” and was intended to move Spain from dictatorship under Franco to a democratic state. The Spanish amnesty law freed political prisoners imprisoned or exiled under Franco, and in exchange, it granted immunity to those who had committed war crimes under Franco’s rule. The purpose of the law was to have people forget and move on. Guess what…it didn’t work. No one did teshuva and victims could not forgive, and worse, felt abandoned in their pain and could not forget. So, to foster forgiveness, it helps to have a process.

In the former Yugoslavia, where my husband, Steve and I had visited, there was a process for addressing war crimes through a tribunal in the Hauge. Nonetheless, people in Croatia and Bosnia who had survived the war in the 1990s did not feel vindicated. We kept hearing things like, “If they would only apologize!” People complained that despite the war-crimes trials and the memorials to victims, Serbia did not take responsibility for their wrongdoing. Rather, Serbians blamed the genocide on individual actors–local ethnic Serbians who lived in Bosnia. Interestingly, when we got to Serbia, we heard, consistently, a paltry acceptance of responsibility for various genocides, phrased as “Yes, but . . . .” “YES, we did bad things, BUT it was in retaliation for the bad things that were done to us earlier.” “Yes, some Serbians committed massacres, BUT they didn’t kill women and children.” Oh—and even though there were memorials and art exhibits, even in Croatia, these massacres were too controversial for school children, so schools did not teach about this most recent chapter in history.

So, in Spain—no forgiveness because no process to confront the wrongdoing. In the former Yugoslavia, no forgiveness because the teshuva on the part of the Serbians wasn’t earnest enough.

And why wasn’t the teshuva earnest enough? What would show earnestness in teshuva? The Croatians said they wanted an apology (or what we term, on Yom Kippur, “a confession.”) In other words, an acknowledgement of the offense. And what seems to prevent that acknowledgment? After a lot of listening and thinking, (and some reading of Maimonedes), the most profound impediment seems to be . . . shame. Now, talking about the reasons that teshuva is so difficult is a bit off topic. Doing Tschuvah and granting forgiveness are different—but as just noted, an offender’s teshuva sometimes makes it easier for the victim of the offense to forgive.

Turning to the genocide most personal to us, as Jews—the Holocaust.

In Simon’s Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, Wiesenthal writes about being in a death camp, when a dying Nazi soldier summons him to his bed, wanting to confess to a Jewish prisoner and seeking Wiesenthal’s forgiveness. Wiesenthal is silent and does not forgive him—but when he goes to see the soldier’s mother, after the war, he listens to her grief and takes his leave “without diminishing in any way the poor woman’s last surviving consolation—faith in the goodness of her son.” (Sunflower, p. 94).

The second half of The Sunflower consists of a series of essays by theologians, world leaders, philosophers, etc. on whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven the soldier. Wikipedia has a nice chart of the responses. No surprise, but nearly all the Jews, whether Rabbis, journalists, or professors responded “Do not forgive.” There were a few who responded “uncertain,” but by and large, the Jews said, “No,” to forgiveness. The Catholics, on the other hand, plus the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu were among the small minority that responded, “Forgive.” Now, maybe that comes from Christian theology, but I strongly suspect that it reflects more on the fact that when it comes to the Holocaust, even among the most secular of Jews, it feels personal.

So the fact that Jews have a hard time forgiving someone who participated in the Holocaust—even a dying soldier who appears to express genuine remorse—should come as no shock. But I point it out because it illustrates another common and painful dynamic that sometimes happens when we talk about forgiveness. It is easier to point the finger and figure out the solutions to other people’s conflicts. As Simon Wiesenthal points out, forgiveness must come from the person who is the actual victim of the offense. Or as the folk singer Steve Goodman says, “It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles.” And you can’t push someone or judge someone who is aggrieved to forgive even if you think it is the right thing to do. It’s easy to see this in the context of the Holocaust, because it is the most extreme example of wrongdoing and because we Jews are the ones aggrieved.

All of this has a common theme—to truly forgive, the work has to be personal and deep. And sometimes it helps if the offender does teshuva and seeks forgiveness from the one who is aggrieved. And even if the offender does teshuva . . . it still takes time. How much time? How long did it take before someone in your family would consider buying a German car? Or think about traveling to Berlin?

Why time? Because when someone is the victim of an offense, they often set up mechanisms to avoid being the victim again. Have you ever been hurt and set up rules for yourself to avoid that situation again? Did you ever say to yourself, “I will never attend another family dinner with that idiot cousin again?” or “I can’t be in the same room, serve on the same committee, or be in the same shul as that person!” It takes time for Germany to transcend its past, for your idiot cousin to become less triggering, and for that person to become…just a small part of a larger community experience. And declaring that something is unforgiveable, particularly with a finger-waving tone of self-righteousness, often blinds you, at least in the short term, to seeing whether (1) someone is trying to do teshuva; or (2) whether there is a path for reconciliation.

Moving away from the genocide context…I became curious about issues surrounding atonement and forgiveness when I began working in criminal justice (for the prosecution) and saw horrific and complicated crimes that prompted me to wonder whether atonement was ever possible. It was particularly troubling since I was raised by schoolteachers who believed everyone was capable of learning, maturing, and self-improvement. So, in criminal justice, there is a process for holding people accountable for their wrongdoing. And, there is shame as a potent force that prevents defendants from accepting responsibility for their misconduct. As Wiesenthal reminds us, remorse comes from appreciating the harm to victims— something that is difficult and requires self-reflection. But, unlike the walls I just mentioned that preclude forgiveness, that is, prevent people from seeing their offender’s teshuva or a path for reconciliation, in the context of criminal justice, some victims need those walls (in fact, some crime victims need to learn to construct them) to protect themselves or their children, for example, from domestic violence or sexual abuse.

When I told a friend recently that I wanted to talk about how to come to terms with offenses that are unforgivable, he said, “Who says you have to forgive someone?” He reminded me that on Yom Kippur we pray for forgiveness from G-d. We make amends for our wrongs with other people, but our prayers are focused on coming to grips with our own wrongdoing before G-d. By confessing, we take responsibility as a community for an A-to-Z list of sins, but we also personally try to overcome our shame and come clean before God.

So maybe there is less pressure then, to forgive those family members. Except . . . there is one thing about forgiveness that maybe the Christians got right. Forgiveness is kind of like a re-set. In Writing my Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, Shaka Senghor writes about his 20 years in prison for a murder he committed. It is the BEST narrative I have ever read that illustrates teshuva. He mixes chapters about his life and what led him to kill someone, with chapters about his coming to terms with the crime. I was ready to forgive him half-way through the book—but he kept saying in each chapter—“not yet”–that while he was gaining insight, he wasn’t really in tune with the depth of what he had done. He is eventually released and just when you think the book has ended, there is an Afterword. It is a letter that Senghor received from the godmother of his victim, six years into his prison term. She told him about the victim, her godson whom she raised—how difficult this loss was for the victim’s brother and his two children. And she wrote to Senghor that she forgave him. Senghor wrote back and, while it would be at least “half a decade before the change she hoped for would begin to manifest itself” in his life, her confidence that Senghor’s past did not define him entirely gave him some of the support he needed to eventually forgive himself.

So, now that we’ve talked a bit about genocide and criminal justice—back to my beloved mother, whom I have forgiven now many times over. So let’s review: Forgiveness has to be personal—and we should not judge those who cannot forgive. Forgiveness is easier when the offender seeks forgiveness through teshuva. There are no hard and fast rules about when the teshuva between individuals is sufficient (The ask three times rule absolves you of the obligation before G-d, but doesn’t necessarily reconcile your relationship with the other person.)—but it’s definitely easier to forgive when the offender can articulate the offense, and is empathetic to the person he or she has hurt. “I’m sorry” is a start. “I’m sorry for the particular thing I did,” describing the offense, is better. “I’m sorry for the offense and I imagine you felt terrible” or “how did that make you feel when I did that?” is even better still. And, it can take time.

When our children were in elementary school, we started a tradition on Erev Yom Kippur where we would go around the table and talk about how we had “missed the mark” this year, and what we wanted to do better in the coming year. I remember the first couple of years, our son, Eli, would say, “Pass.” And I remember the whole family would get really animated when it came time for Mom to confess her sins— which was a clue to me about how powerful and invulnerable they thought I was. But our apologies matured as we did. It was a really nice way of saying, I’m sorry to everyone for various things that had happened. Things change every year—and some years are particularly challenging. So it was a way of confessing our disappointments in ourselves and letting other family members know that we didn’t like those parts of ourselves and really wanted to do better.

And then—there was an added bonus. Because we were not telling our family members how they missed the mark, but actually listening to each other express our own disappointments, we learned things about each other we would not have known. It didn’t occur to me that one of my children had a learning disability until he talked about his disappointment at school. And having expressed our vulnerability, it allows us an opportunity to express our support in a very genuine way.

So…there are lots of impediments to forgiveness and they show up in force in personal relationships. And it can certainly be a protective shield to keep your distance from people who have harmed in ways that appear unforgivable. But against the backdrop of genocide and crime, and with the dawning of a new year, it doesn’t hurt to ask if those personal relationships remain intractable. Are we seeing the relationship clearly? With the passage of time, does the offender still wield power over us? As Shaka Senghor wrote when the godmother of the young man he murdered reached out to him: “The best I could do when I received this letter was take one small step. I wrote back. When Nancy wrote again, we began a correspondence that continued for years. Still, it would be half a decade before the change she hoped for would begin to manifest itself in my life. And that’s the thing about hope. In the moment when you feel it, it can seem foolish or sentimental or disconnected from reality. But hope knows that people change on a timeline that we can’t predict. We can never know the power that a word of kindness or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it most.”

May this Yom Kippur lead us to look inward, to think again or anew about our relationships, to open ourselves to the vulnerability of coming clean, at least before G-d, and to deepen our relationships with each other. Shanah Tovah.