The Power to Forgive
If you ever bump into me while I am having my morning coffee you will notice that I am usually reading one of our local daily papers. I especially enjoy reading sections like This Day in History or catching up on our local high school sports. But, the most fun comes when I read the personals. I always find it so fascinating what and who people are looking for and the fact that they felt an advertisement in a local paper was the best way to find it.
Just the other day I read a most intriguing ad in the personal section simply titled Roger Come Home! The first line of the advertisement read: “All is forgiven and we love you!”
I don’t know if Roger was a husband, a son or a brother. Roger might have been a dog! What did he do? Why did he leave home? Where was he? Did they really mean it when they said “All is forgiven?” The ad captures the imagination. Did Roger ever return home? I’ll never know. But, since I read this personal I have been thinking about Roger and when I began to write this sermon it became obvious to me that this is what tonight is all about.
Most scholars believe that Kol Nidre began in Spain, in the seventh century, during the persecution of the Jews by the West Goths. It was recited extensively during the Inquisition, when the Jewish communities of Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism upon pain of death. Many sought a way out of their coerced faith by turning to Numbers 15:26 where it is written: “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people, it was done in error.” In this Biblical passage, they found a legal formula for annulling vows made to God under duress, and this is how they tried desperately to maintain their religious identity in secret. These Jews invoked Kol Nidre, on the holiest night of the year; a plea for forgiveness from their false religious oaths.
But over time Kol Nidre took on an expanded meaning: It became emblematic of God’s willingness to forgive all of us for all of our transgressions. For in the end, the truth is that all our sins are committed in error.
At the core of Kol Nidre is the understanding that despite our failures, God recognizes the good in each of us and continues to believe in us. Oh, there are consequences to our actions to be sure. But there is also the possibility of repair and healing. Tonight, we muster the courage to say I’m sorry and God says to each one of us: All is forgiven.
So as we come together on this Yom Kippur to appologize and ask forgiveness from God, we also come to understand that God in our tradition does not want our suffering, our sickness or our death. Rather God desires only that we turn back from our sins, and that we seek to fix that which we have broken and heal that which we have hurt.
I want to share a story with you. A Jewish teenager by the name of David received a parrot for his bar mitzvah. Truth be told, his parents couldn’t afford the one he had been eyeing at the pet store, but his father had a friend who gave him a deal on a parrot that he was trying to get rid of. This parrot was fully grown with a bad attitude and worse vocabulary. David tried hard to change the bird. He was constantly trying to introduce better words to the parrot’s vocabulary. He would play soft music, read up on parrot training on the Internet, he really made an effort to get his new pet to improve its ways. Nothing worked.
One day David was at his wit’s end, and just plain lost it. He yelled at the bird, cursing at it using the parrot’s own vocabulary. The bird got worse. He shook the bird and the bird got madder and ruder. Finally, in a moment of desperation, David put the parrot in the freezer. For a few moments he heard the bird squawking, kicking and screaming and then, suddenly, all was quiet.
David was frightened that he might have actually killed the bird and quickly opened the freezer door. The parrot calmly stepped out onto David’s extended arm and said: “I’m sorry that I offended you with my language and actions. I ask for your forgiveness.”
David was astounded at the bird’s change in attitude and was about to ask what changed him when the parrot continued, “May I ask what the chicken did?”
Like David’s parrot – all too often we need to have our feathers ruffled before we appologize and ask for forgiveness.
The fact is most of us have trouble not only appologizing but even more difficulty in forgiving. I think it is natural for us to try and hide the very fact that we are answerable for our moral shortcomings and I think that this is one of the biggest reasons we often become frozen and unable to to ask for forgiveness. We think about recriminations, we think that others will love us less or even worse not forgive us.
I want to go out on limb and suggest that the best way for us to become more comfortable and better at apologizing is for us to become more comfortable and better at forgiving. If we want to be the type of person who can admit to our shortcomings and our mistakes we must also be the type of person who can forgive others when they admit to their shortcomings and to their mistakes.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that "God does not stop loving us every time we do something wrong and neither should we stop loving ourselves and each other for being less than perfect.”
If God is so willing to forgive, then shouldn’t we be willing to forgive too? The Torah commands us to walk in all God’s ways. In the Midrash the rabbis explain this to mean: “As God is gracious and compassionate, we too must be gracious and compassionate. As God is faithful, we too must be faithful. As God is loving, we too must be loving. And as God forgives, we too must forgive.”
I am sure that some of you are thinking that this is all well and good for your every day run of the mill sins. But you ask: Do you know what he did? What she said? What they plotted? How can I forgive?
You say to me: “Rabbi, you ask us to forgive but how can I forget what he – she – they did or said? But hold on, did I ever ask you to forget? We can search our tradition but I can’t seem to find anywhere that states forgiveness equals forgetting? Where is it written that when God forgives your sin - God forgets your sin?
To forgive is not to forget. To forgive is to give another person the chance to try again. To forgive is to be liberated from the inner anger, from the quest for vengeance that consumes your life and embitters the life of your family. To forgive is not to forget. No one expects you to forget. No one believes that forgiveness eliminates the memory of being wronged.
A rabbinic sage once explained that sinning is like pounding nails into a wooden chest. And repentance and forgiveness are like removing the nails from the wooden chest. The nail may be removed but the hole remains. The scar does not disappear.
Trust me, I don’t believe this is easy nor do I believe forgiveness can completely reverses the past. And I am in no way espousing that all of the responsibilty falls on the person who has been wornged. I am not trying to imply that under every circumstance we should forgive someone without an earnest attempt from that person taking some responsibiilty for their actions.
As Dr. Louis E. Newman writes in his book on repentance:
“The work of of repairing a broken relationship needs to be commensurate with the pain that our actions cuased. If the harm involved is significant, there is no quick and easy way to undo it.
Forgiveness is not free, or in many cases even cheap – nor should it be. The effort involved in apologizing again and again demonstrates that we are engaged in a genuine process of teshuvah, and seeing this is precisely what enables the injured party to forgive and reenter the relationship.”1
Yes, people have a responsibility to apologize no matter how difficult that may be, but as we all know we cannot always control what another person does or does not do. Therefore the ability to forgive falls on our shoulders and remarkably has an amazing ability to heal.
As Dr. Everett L. Worthington who is the Executive Director of the Campign for Forgiveness Research would argue that even if the person who commited the offense doesn’t or can’t apologize it is still in our benefit to forgive.
This reasearch is dedicated to promoting forgiveness and reconciliation between people through scientific exploration that proves that forgiveness brings healing. Dr. Worthington’s campaign boldly asserts that: “Forgiving can heal individuals, marriages, families, communities, and even entire nations.”
The research suggests that forgiveness has major benefits. Forgiveness reduces the stress of the state of un-forgiveness. That stress is composed of a potent mixture of bitterness, anger, hostility, hatred, resentment and fear of being humiliated again. The reasearch also shows that stress of un-forgiveness has specific physiological consequences such as increased blood pressure; hormonal changes linked to cardiovascular disease, immune suppression, and impaired neurological function and memory. These findings support Dr. Worthington’s claim that: “Forgiveness is both a decision and a real change in emotional experience. That change in emotion is related to better mental and physical health.” 2
So you see, forgiveness is not only for the sake of the person who hurt you, it is more importantly a gift to yourself.
Dr. Dean Ornish, a well-known guru of health and nutrition, regards forgiveness as the “tofu of the soul,” a healthful alternative to what he calls the “red meat of anger and vengeance.” In a way, says Dr. Ornish, “the most selfish thing you can do for yourself is to forgive other people.”
So if our tradition demands forgiveness of us, and if forgiveness is so good for us, why is it that we find it so hard to forgive? According to a nationwide Gallup survey 94% of Americans said it was important to forgive. And yet in the same survey, only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others. 48%. That means more than half admitted that they usually do not try to forgive.
Perhaps, we associate forgiveness with weakness. We assume accepting an apology is giving the other person control over our lives. The truth is just the opposite. As long as we are angry with others they control our lives. When we forgive, we free ourselves.
Many years ago I had the privilage of meeting Eva Kor, a Holocaust Survivor. At the age of ten, Eva and her twin sister Miriam, were taken to Auschwitz where Dr. Josef Mengele used them for medical experiments. Both survived, but Miriam died in 1993 when she developed cancer of the bladder as a consequence of the experiments done to her as a child.
Eva recalls that she and Miriam were part of a group of children who were alive for one reason only – to be used as human guinea pigs. She writes: “During our time in Auschwitz we talked very little. Starved for food and human kindness, it took every ounce of strength just to stay alive.”
On January 27, 1945, four days before Eva’s 11th birthday, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army. After 9 months in refugee camps she returned to her village in Romania to find that no one from her family had survived. Eva shared that echoes from Auschwitz were a part of her life but she did not speak publicly about her experiences until 1978 after the television series ‘The Holocaust’ was aired.
In 1993, shortly after her sister’ death, Eva was invited to lecture to some doctors in Boston and asked if she could bring a Nazi doctor with her. Eva thought it was a mad request until she remembered that she had once been in a documentary which had also featured a Dr Hans Munch from Auschwitz. She contacted him in Germany and he said he would meet with her for a videotaped interview to take to the conference.
Eva remebers how she was so scared to meet this Nazi doctor. But when she arrived at his home he treated her with the utmost respect. She asked him if he’d seen the gas chambers. He said this was a nightmare he dealt with every day of his life. She was surprised that Nazis had nightmares too and asked him if he would come with her to Auschwitz to sign a document at the ruins of the gas chambers. He said that he would.
In her desperate effort to find a meaningful thank you gift for Dr. Munch for agreeing to join her at Auschwitz she searched the stores, and her heart, for many months. Then the idea of a Forgiveness Letter came to her mind. She said “I knew it would be a meaningful gift, but it became a gift to myself as well, because I realized I was NOT a hopeless, powerless victim.”
When she asked a friend to check her Forgiveness Letter for spelling errors, her friend challenged her to forgive Mengele too. At first she was adamant that she could never forgive Mengele but then Eva realised she had the power now…the power to forgive. It was her right to use it. No one could take it away.
On January 27 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Eva stood by the ruins of the gas chambers with her children and with Dr. Munch and his children and grandchild. Dr. Munch signed his document about the operation of the gas chambers while Eva read her document of forgiveness and signed it. Eva remembers that as she did this she felt a burden of pain was lifted from her. She says, “I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free.”
Eva also shared that the day she forgave the Nazis, privately she forgave her parents whom she hated all her life for not having saved her and her sister from Auschwitz. When I questioned Eva about how she could forgive Mengele, Eva told me that forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. She calls it a miracle medicine. She says it is free, it works and has no side effects.
I still struggle with Eva’s ability to forgive such a monster. I struggle mostly because I question whether I could ever be so forgiving? As I wrestle with my own limitations I think of Eva often and I am insprired to grow and eveolve in my own ability to forgive. My hope is that by sharing Eva’s story with all of you – you too can be inspired to forgive someone in order to heal yourselves.
Tonight, with the sounds of Kol Nidre coursing through our veins we must dig deep and be honest. Are we so perfect and beyond reproach? Have we committed no wrongs, hurt no one? Yet knowing our own faults and transgressions, we still manage to ask God to forgive and pardon us! And if God is so willing to forgive, then shouldn’t we be willing to forgive too?
This is why as we listen to the haunting melody of Kol Nidre once again I will ask each of us to meditate – without talking - on one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves this Erev Yom Kippur - who do we have to forgive in order to be at peace in our lives?
(This sermon was inspired by and uses some parts of sermons by Rabbis Rick Block, Hillel Silverman, Harold Schulweis, Harold Kushner, Steven Carr Reuben, and Gregory Marx.)
1 Dr. Louis E.Newman, Repentence: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah, pp. 93-94