The Right to Forgive
I’d like to pose a difficult question to you as I begin this morning, not unlike some of the kinds of questions you sometimes ask me.
In this, the season of forgiveness, should I forgive the person who murdered my father?
My dad, as some of you might know, was murdered at his place of business in Chicago in January, 1999. No one is in jail for his murder. But not a day goes by when I don’t think about my dad. And there have been whole days and weeks in the last 20 years when I have been obsessed with wondering where the person is who killed him, what are they are doing, and whether they think about that day as often as I do.
And I wonder, in this season of the Jewish year: should I forgive them, even though I will never forget?
Dr. Victor Meyer Schernberger, a professor at Oxford University, has studied just this problem. He says that, “the unfortunate element of human remembering is that…we can’t deliberately forget…We don’t know how to disregard memories of our past. [And,] we don’t know how to forgive if we remember.”
This is the season of forgiveness.
But are we ready to forgive others the wrongs that they have done to us? And does that forgiveness have limits?
And all the more so, to Dr. Schernberger’s point, how can anyone forgive anyone these days, when the world in which we live won’t allow us to forget– when the gory details of our lives remain on line forever in emails, in texts, on social media, and even in the news?
I listen religiously to a podcast called RadioLab. One recent episode talked about this issue. The episode outlined the wrestling of one particular newsroom about a phenomenon called “The Right to be Forgotten.”
The gist is this: in the old days, lo 30 years ago, if you did something stupid, got arrested, and your escapade ended up in the newspaper, people would read about it in the paper the next morning, and then they’d throw out the paper. The story would drop out of sight; it was not easy to find afterwards.
But now that everything is online, that kind of story is there, always and forever. So if you’re going on a date, it’s there. If you’re applying for college or a job, it’s there. The story just never goes away.
The podcast talked about a new phenomenon in which people are writing in to online newsrooms and asking that stories from their past be removed from the web. People write in to digital editions of newspapers saying things like:
“Yes, that was me—I drove drunk and got arrested 25 years ago. It’s never happened again.”
“Yes, that was me. I got caught dealing some pot in college. Didn’t we all do dumb things in college?”
“Yes, that was me, I streaked across my high school football field when I was 17. I was young and stupid.”
“Yes, I cheated on my timesheet 15 years ago and got caught. But I’ve changed, and haven’t broken the law since.”
The news business, often called “the first draft of history,” is wrestling with an interesting dilemma: if people have moved on from their misdeeds of decades ago, do they have a right to have the things they did wrong forgotten? Should their slate of long-ago deeds that, because they appeared on the web, are now keeping them from getting a second date or a second interview, be wiped clean?
The number of such requests to news sites continues to increase, even until today, and editors everywhere are being implored by people to help them overcome a past mistake: essentially, to be given the right to be forgotten.
Eventually, some American newsrooms, like Cleveland.com, decided that they didn’t want to be agents of endless suffering. The editors at Cleveland.com published a piece that essentially said, “If you’ve had an article written about you, and it was by us, and you want it taken down, or your name deleted, send us an email, and we will consider it.”
They established a committee that meets once a month to consider these requests. It’s called “the right to be forgotten” team.
This seems to be an appropriate time of the year to be wrestling with the messiness of forgiving and forgetting. That’s what this time is all about.
And when it comes to our relationship with God, Judaism’s theology suggests that there’s a book—a Book of Life—that God has kept to record our deeds.
And the way the system is set up is that, if we make amends, and apologize to God in these Days of Awe, if we pray and repent and beat our chests at Ashamnu in earnestness about the sins we’ve committed towards God, our record will be expunged.
That gives me some comfort, as someone with a fair amount of work to do. With God as the editor of our own Book of Life, the theology of our high holiday prayer book seems to say that God will be merciful in taking down stories that cause us ongoing pain, if we are sincere in our resolve not to make the same mistakes again.
In God’s newsroom, at least, it seems that we have a right to be forgotten. That’s a relief.
But there’s another record I also worry about—another book, if you will. Each and every person in this room owns their own version of this two-volume book of memories. One volume records all the things we’ve done to harm the other people in our lives. And the other records all the things that others have done to harm us.
Back at Cleveland.com, once a month, the “right to be forgotten” team, consisting of journalists and editors, meets to discuss these cases. They review the original articles, and the statements submitted by the people who have requested that either they want their names or the article itself removed.
The podcast follows their deliberations; it is by turns a fascinating and infuriating process; I invite you to check it out.
In the end, for what it’s worth, the plea of the woman who dealt drugs in college to be forgotten by Cleveland.com was granted. The story about the guy who lied on his timesheet, however—a police officer—wasn’t removed. These are judgement calls that are being made by newsrooms across the United States every day.
But unlike Cleveland.com or Google, or God, as human beings, we biologically can’t decide to forget things we’ve done, or forget the things that have been done to us.
Whether we have a right to be forgotten by the internet is a topic that I predict will someday soon come to the United States Supreme Court. But even if it’s determined legally that, in certain cases, the internet can be expunged of certain memories, what of us humans and our unforgetting brains?
On the internet, and in real human interaction, there’s never going to be a perfect way to clean up everyone’s past. There has to be another way to deal with the harm we cause one another.
Judaism has a name for that other way. It’s called teshuvah. Repentance.
Jewish tradition teaches that if I offend someone, it is my responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters straight. And, according to the rabbis, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuvah, that is, to correct the wrong done to me.
It all sounds so nice and neat and clean and easy. If only.
If we are totally honest, I bet that all of us want our misdeeds to be forgiven by the people we’ve hurt. And, we want them to forgive us quickly, the first time we ask, and for them not to make us beg.
But the truth is of course, that such a system depends on us being willing to forgive others in just the same way. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find the second part of that equation—the “forgiving others” part—to be really hard.
But here’s the thing. As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches, forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable.
When we understand that we have little choice as to what other people do but that we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories, and enter the New Year clean and fresh.
The rabbis, and the high holiday liturgy they wrote, speak of three types of forgiveness that we are called to engage in when we sing, as will on Yom Kippur, “slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.”
And each of them can help in different ways, depending upon where we are in the process of forgiveness. So let’s examine each of these kinds in turn.
Selichah is the first type of forgiveness. Selichah is about reaching a deeper understanding of the person who has harmed us. It calls us to have empathy for the troubledness of the other person. Selichah does not demand that we reconcile or embrace someone who has hurt us. It does, though, call us to come to terms with the fact that the offender, like us, is human, frail, and deserving of empathy.
“Empathy for those who have wronged me, rabbi? Really? After all they’ve done, you expect me to give them a chance to apologize?” Needless to say, selicha is not easy work. But if we expect empathy from others; if we want others to give us a chance to ask forgiveness, we must offer that chance to others.
The second kind of forgiveness is mechilah, literally “forgoing the other’s indebtedness.” If the offender has done teshuvah, and is sincere in their repentance, the offended person should offer mechilah. We should relinquish our claim against the one who harmed us.
Mechilah means that we have reached the conclusion that the offender no longer owes us anything monetarily or spiritually for whatever it was that they did. Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.
I can hear you thinking: “Now that they have sincerely apologized, I should stop holding a grudge against them, stop giving them the silent treatment, stop demanding that they continue to make up for it, rabbi?” Mechilah makes the case that, in such instances, yes, we must forgive their indebtedness to us, just as we’d want to be forgiven if we’re sincere in our apologies.
Kapparah is the ultimate, and perhaps most elusive kind of forgiveness. Kapparah represents a total wiping away of all misdeeds. It is an existential cleansing. The rabbis say that kapparah can only be granted by God. This is the kind of forgiveness we ask for on Yom Kippur—the day of kapparah—that our Book of Life be renewed for another year.
This ingenious and nuanced system that the rabbis bequeathed us serves as an opportunity for us to be whole again even in the broken places in our lives.
Selichah invites us to hold open the door for the possibility that those who have wronged us want to repair what has been torn asunder. Mechilah helps humans heal their relationships when the sinner feels remorse, and wants a fresh start. And kapparah helps us renew our relationship with the Holy One of Blessing.
We may not have a right to have most of our wrongdoings forgotten. But this system asserts that we may well, under the right circumstances, have the right to be forgiven.
“But what if the sinner is unrepentant, rabbi? What if the sinner died without apologizing?” Still further, what if, like me, you don’t know who exactly committed the transgression? And, perhaps hardest of all, what if the sin itself seems absolutely unforgivable? It occurs to me that, in a way, the traditional categories of selichah, mechilah, and kapparah don’t really help us get through such moments.
We should each pursue selicha, mechila, and kapparah in these Days of Awe, and every day, for that matter.
But I know that more than a few of you have pains that have been inflicted upon you with no remorse or repentance coming from the person who hurt you. There are those among us today who have been hurt or victimized in truly serious and sustained ways.
In some cases, the perpetrator has repented or has been punished. In other cases, not. In the later cases, you may feel like you’re being held hostage to anger and fear and ache.
Can it really be true that, if the sinner either refuses or missed their opportunity to repent, that there is no Jewish context in which the victim can escape the pain inflicted on them?
Can the family of a victim of gun violence, or the abused child, or the abandoned spouse, or the son or daughter whose mother or father died without making peace, truly find no liberation from their bondage? If we can’t forget, and the cause of our hurt never repents, can we forgive? And must we?
If this process is not provided for by the usual modes of teshuvah handed down to us by the Jewish generations—if this pain will find no balm in selichah, mechilah, or kapparah, perhaps it’s time for a new category that we, survivors of unhealed wounds inflicted on us, can control.
I humbly suggest that we call this new mode of forgiveness shachrira.
Like the other Hebrew words I’ve used this morning, shachrira has many connotations. Its basic meaning, though, is a letting go, a liberating, a redeeming.
In the face of unrepented sin, this kind of forgiveness, shachrira, might give us the opportunity to be freed of the poison and brokenness that has been inflicted on our souls in situations where the person who harmed us may never say they’re sorry, or could never even possibly make amends for what they’ve done.
Shachrira would allow us to acknowledge the loss of innocence, trust, and faith that comes with being hurt; it would also allow us to still rage against the sins that were committed against us.
And, shachrira might allow us to affirm, with a lot of self-love, and the support of family and friends and therapists and clergy, that we have survived, and that we can begin anew in a way that allows us to bear witness to the resilience that is in the human spirit.
Shachrira offers the possibility that, little by little, we can let go of the darkness that can feel like it has a grip on our lives.
Shachrer lanu, O, God, we pray. Liberate us, and help us to liberate ourselves.
Help us to shift the focus from the offender, and the offense that they committed, to the deep and undying desire we have to regain our own equilibrium. Help us regain control over our lives, instead of letting the people who have harmed us maintain their control over us.
Forgiveness in general, I am suggesting this morning, always includes an internal process of loss and acceptance, of pain and understanding, of anger and blessings, of trust lost and faith regained.
But wait, I hear you saying. You want me to forgive my partner who left me? You want me to let go of the person who abused me? You want me to liberate from my life the person who committed a crime against me or someone I love?
And my answer is: yes, with time, on your own timetable, I want you to consider offering shachrira. Not to excuse them for what they did, and not because they have a right to be forgotten.
Offer shachrira not to say that what they did is acceptable, but as a way of denying such a person the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful person, or keep you that way. They do not deserve that continued control over over you and your life.
Now: hear in my words no judgment on your particular situation. If you are not ready l’shachrer, to liberate the pain you feel, or if you’re not sure you’ll ever be ready, I can say with empathy, I know something of how you feel.
Hear in these words not judgment from me, but instead, hear an invitation to consider what you thought might never be possible—to see releasing the grip of those who have hurt you as an act of self redemption—a redemption of your own soul in a situation where the one who wronged you may well never redeem it for you.
I believe that it just might be possible for all of us, eventually, to redeem our spirits from those who have unapologetically hurt us. In the moments when we can, I submit, we hold the possibility to restore light to the darkest places in our lives.
Near the Dead Sea is an oasis called Ein Gedi. It is one of my very favorite places in Israel—in the world, really. The summer heat there is intense, dry, and oppressive. The Dead Sea is utterly still, blue, buoyant, filled with minerals that let nothing live in its waters.
You drive into the parking lot at Ein Gedi, fill up your water bottle, and begin climbing a mountain path. You pass stones and boulders. The heat is stifling, and you wonder, “Why am I doing this? I could have stayed in the cool air conditioning of the gift shop. What am I sweating for?”
And then suddenly, there is green. In the distance you see date palms and flowers and shade. There is life here, after all. You begin to hear people playing, laughing, yelling to one another. You hear water falling on rocks and people splashing. You round the bend, and there it is. In the middle of the desert, a waterfall! You enter the pool and stand in the cool water. All the dust, all the heat, all the deadness washes from your body and you feel alive and filled to the brim with relief and joy that you couldn’t have imagined just moments before. You finally realize why you made the hard journey in the first place.
My friends, just as those of us who’ve made mistakes in the past year have a decision to make about whether we will attempt in these days to apologize or not, so, too, those of us who are holding on to deep brokenness have a choice to make, too. Whether or not those who have wronged us have repented, we have within our control the ability to move forward, or to stay where we are; to be forever tied to loss and pain, or to search for places where there is abundant love that is sustained by a source, deep and invisible, like an oasis in the desert.
It is easy to hold onto resentments, pain, and victimhood. We are raised with a sense of fairness, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. And it is not right that we should experience rejection, cruelty, or betrayal.
And, though, if we choose, we do not have to remain shackled to those old hurts.
In this way, Disney has it right.
Let it go.
Letting go of the wrongs done to you denies their continued hold on your life.
Shachrira. Stop letting those who have harmed you live rent-free in your head. That’s priceless real estate they’re squatting in—real estate you could be using to enjoy life, to trust again, to be as whole as you can be with all you’ve been through.
Shachrer lanu, O God. Help us release the pain that others have caused us that has continued to take hold of us across the miles, across the years, even from beyond the grave.
In this way, we will regain the power to choose life and love over death of the spirit and anger in our souls. In this way, we will in fact become new people: more open, more loving, more whole, as we step forward, redeemed and liberated, into this New Year.