forgiveness 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
forgiveness 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Three years ago, during the Q&A segment of a dialogue session with Christians in Israel, an African American university student from Detroit began to weep and asked for forgiveness for what the church had done to the Jewish people. I was left speechless by her sincerity. Here was a young individual far removed from the events that preceded her, yet who found it deep within her soul to bring the past into the present.
The entire room was moved to tears.
Grasping for an answer, all I could say was that she had nothing to do with those atrocities, and by coming to Israel to stand with the Jewish people was demonstrating a proactive approach that was atoning for Church history.
As to absolution, I told her I was simply one Jew; no one had made me a representative of my people.
Yet how can even I alone forgive when the wounds of history are still open? Nothing prepared me for the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany; a sisterhood dedicated to amending the sins of the past and finding practical ways of helping Israel and the Jews. How does one respond to the sincere gestures of atonement by these holy individuals? My previous answer to the young woman from Detroit was simply inadequate here, for these people were from the nation that had sought to destroy mine. By forgiving them, would I be dishonoring the voices of the past? In synagogue this past month, we read how Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. In reviewing the dark events in his life caused by their hatred for him, Joseph says: Thus God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land, and to sustain you for momentous deliverance. It was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:7-8).
The story of Joseph and his brothers is filled with hate, cruelty, despair and abandonment, though it has a happy ending. In a moment, a slave became the most powerful person in the known world! Facing his brothers, Joseph found the emotional resources to love even his sworn enemies. He had every reason to despise his brothers for putting him through such misery. He could have killed them and allowed Benjamin to live. After all, he had the power. He was Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Human nature would expect revenge, but Joseph finds the power to forgive.
Joseph explains that his life had been directed by God’s redemptive plan for the family.
Forgiveness is fundamental to our faith. On the Day of Atonement, the nation asks God to forgive our sins.
In preparation for Yom Kippur, we ask others for forgiveness, and forgive those who have hurt us.
Even if a person has not actually asked for forgiveness, one should forgive.
While a perfectly just society is impossible, this does not mean one can’t strive for it. However, in creating a just society one must let grudges go. It’s true that forgiveness benefits the forgiven; but it also benefits the forgiver, for it relieves the unnecessary burden of harboring hate in one’s heart.
It’s easy to get caught up in taking revenge on each other. In fact, nation states have been doing this since the dawn of history, but ultimately it has destroyed these nations. Forgiveness is the unpredictable move that can help us avoid repeating the conflicts of the past. Inherent in forgiveness is the hope for a better tomorrow, and the foundation of reconciliation. This doesn’t mean one should forget the past, but allows one not to dwell on it. Total loyalty to the past will only make forgiveness seem like a moral failure! In order for reconciliation between Jews and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians, we must ask ourselves what kind of future we wish to leave for our children. Do we want a future of hope, or one in which we continue to harbor the ill feelings of the past and present? Joseph found the ability to forgive, and I wish to learn from my biblical forefather.

David Nekrutman is Executive Director for The Center for Jewish- Christian Understanding & Cooperation in Efrat, Israel