Forgiving without forgetting

Both right and left wings use the same slogan of unforgiving.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
October 10, 2005 22:03

‘We won’t forget, we won’t forgive’ [lo nishkah velo nislah] is the chosen slogan of much of the Right in the aftermath of disengagement. T-shirts, bumper stickers, banners and bookmarks disseminate the sombre message of unforgivingness. In an article entitled “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive,” Rabbi Zalman Melamed, head of Yeshivat Beit El and a respected religious Zionist leader, argues that there can be no forgiveness for the evils perpetrated against Gaza settlers. “Even if they [the evacuators] want to repent, their prayers will not be answered until all wrongs are righted, if that is even possible.” Ironically, “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive” was first penned by the Left after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. It was meant to express unforgiving outrage at religious radicalism, which was seen as the cause of the prime minister’s murder. However, the timing of the use of this slogan by the religious Right is not chance. The campaign was launched in Elul, the month preceding the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when a Jew assesses his deeds and prepares to repent and improve. In this calendrical context, to declare “We won’t forgive” has serious religious ramifications. As Maimonides (the Rambam) writes in his Laws of Repentance, “Repentance and Yom Kippur expiate for sins committed against God. But sins committed against one’s fellow are not excused until the damage is paid and the damaged party is conciliated.” According to Jewish law, without forgiveness there can be no expiation of sin for transgressions committed against another. The guilty party might stand before God on Yom Kippur and truly repent for a wrong committed against another Jew, but without forgiveness from the injured party, the supplicant remains guilty in the eyes of God. Even death cannot expiate the sin as long as a grudge is held, say many rabbis. Although the sinner is expected to be penitent and beseeching, the insulted party is expected to be forgiving. As the Rambam writes, “One must not be cruel and refrain from reconciliation. Rather he should be easy to appease and slow to anger. And even if [the guilty party] hurt him and sinned against him greatly, he must not be inexorable or vengeful. That is the way of the seed of Israel and it is their true heart.” BEING UNFORGIVING denies the supplicant atonement, revealing callousness on the part of the injured party. The Rambam points out that if time after time the supplicant is rebuffed and not forgiven by the victim of sin, expiation is granted from God while the stubbornly unforgiving becomes the sinner. Judaism disdains those who refuse to forgive. A personal experience helped me understand why. A relative of mine passed away recently, leaving behind a diary. Strangely, although this man had a career, a wife, children and grandchildren, he barely mentioned them in the diary. Most of the entries were about his deceased father whom he hated: His father was never pleased with any of his son’s accomplishments; his father was never there when his son needed him; his father was self-centered. The fact that my relative chose to write so extensively about his father is revealing. A diary’s content reflects what truly concerns its author. It is where feelings are expressed. It is where thoughts are distilled into words. The habit of writing in a diary is driven by a need to relate one’s most heartfelt passions. My relative was well beyond middle age when he passed away, but his thoughts were occupied with the injustices he suffered as a child and young man. All of his other relationships were secondary. His refusal to forgive his father froze him in the past. It prevented him from fully enjoying his work, his children, his grandchildren. Objectively, there were many positive moments in his life. His children all have successful marriages and careers. His grandchildren are all healthy and beautiful. His wife loved him and was faithful. But his preoccupation with the past prevented him from enjoying many of these riches. He failed to appreciate what he had. IN A way, it is safer to hang onto the past. Facing the future is a challenge. It holds surprises, the unknown. The past is familiar. My relative probably took some comfort in his hateful memories. It may not have been pleasant, but it was charted, emotional territory. Judaism has nothing but contempt for the stubbornly unforgiving because Judaism values life. Letting go of the past and embracing the future is essential to living. Holding a grudge means being emotionally shackled to the past. This does not mean one must forget the past. In the context of post-disengagement, “We won’t forget” should be declared loudly and proudly. The selfless mission of the settlers of Gaza and Northern Samaria to create flourishing communities should never be forgotten. It should be replicated elsewhere. Rabin’s assassination should never be forgotten either. It should be prevented from happening again. But it is wrong to have strong negative emotional attachments to the past to be engulfed by the past to the point where it impinges on the present and the future. Being irreconcilable means being overly involved with the past to the detriment of the future. “We won’t forgive” is an expression of self-defeating intransigence. It implies that letting go and moving on is impossible. I am not proposing a Christian turning of the other cheek. Settlers should demand fair compensation for being uprooted from their homes. The state should accommodate their justified demands. But the former residents of Gaza and north Samaria should be focusing on getting on with their lives, with rebuilding, with the future. It is a Jewish custom, before going to sleep at night, to recite the following prayer: “God Almighty, I hereby forgiv e anyone who has angered me or sinned against me, whether the damage was done to my body, my possessions, my reputation or any other part of me. Whether the damage was done unintentionally or maliciously, in speech or in deed... may no man be punished on my account.” Every night a Jew is asked to forgive, so as to wake up to a new day without the baggage of the past, to embrace the future. This Yom Kippur may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.


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