Forgiving and forgetting

There are many angry bumper stickers on cars in Israel today. The theme of many of them is "we will not forgive, we will not forget."

September 28, 2006 12:52
3 minute read.
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bible jewish 88. (photo credit: )


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There are many angry bumper stickers on cars in Israel today. In fact there have been many angry bumper stickers for quite a number of years. The theme of many of them is "we will not forgive, we will not forget." What is not being forgiven or forgotten ranges from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to the Gaza disengagement. I think that in this period of time when we are occupied with requesting heavenly forgiveness for our own personal failings and transgressions, we should take a more focused look at forgiving and forgetting. The Jewish attitude toward forgiveness is that it is a Godly virtue. Even though Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, abducted our mother Sarah for immoral purposes, Abraham forgave him and prayed for the restoration of his health and the health of his court. Forgiveness is truly an imitation of the divine nature implanted within our souls. However, forgetting is an entirely different matter. In Judaism it is not the victim that is commanded not to forget the wrong done. The perpetrator of that wrong is the one bidden not to forget. Therefore, we find Abraham, after praying for Avimelech and his court, severely reproving him for his behavior. In the words of the Talmud, Abraham tells him: "A stranger arrives in town searching for lodging and hospitality and the only thing you are interested in is the woman who accompanies him." Abraham wants Avimelech to remember the incident. Without that memory the forgiveness part is almost worthless. One cannot forgive a serial criminal. Only the guilty one who remembers the wrong done and pledges not to allow it to recur is truly capable of being forgiven in the eyes of man and Heaven as well. In Proverbs we are told that "One who admits one's wrongdoing and forsakes repeating such behavior will be mercifully forgiven." Contriteness and apology, humility and self-analysis are deserving of forgiveness. Arrogance and blustering, lying and bull-headedness never bring about forgiveness and healing. Such traits are symptomatic of the fact that the perpetrator has forgotten the wrong that was done. Denial of wrongs committed, ignoring obvious mistakes that were made and instead repeating them, certainly cannot hope to bring about forgiveness and harmony in individual or societal relations. King David in Psalms proclaims: "My sins are before me always." Even after being punished and forgiven for those sins, David does not allow himself to forget them. By his not forgetting his wrongs he is guaranteed not to repeat them and the forgiveness extended to him will be permanent and valid. In this week's parasha we read that God granted humans the immeasurably great gift of forgetfulness. Being able to forget is the one thing that allows us to live normal productive lives. If we remembered every moment of pain and embarrassment in our lives we would be unable to leave our beds in the morning. Yet the Torah teaches us that Israel, in its very selective memory, chose to forget the God that had granted them this great gift of being able to forget. The great maggid of Dubnow, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, used a parable to illustrate this behavior. Once there was a man who was heavily in debt and was constantly being hounded by his creditors who gave him no peace day or night. His friend, who was also owed money by this debtor, gave him some advice as to how to relieve the situation. "Pretend you are insane. They will soon give up and leave you alone." The debtor took the advice and started to behave in a crazy fashion, rolling on the floor and frothing at the mouth. Sure enough, the creditors one by one despaired of the situation and stopped bothering him. As the debtor slowly regained his prosperity, the friend who gave him the advice appeared and asked that his loan be repaid. The debtor went into his crazy act. The friend said to him: "Don't pull that act on me! I am the one who taught it to you." So too, the Lord has blessed us with forgetfulness, but we should not pull that act on Him, so to speak. This time of year is a time for forgiveness and remembrance. A time to remember our own failings and try to rectify them, forgive others for theirs and pray to be remembered for good before the Heavenly throne of judgment and forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. (

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