With the Jewish New Year coming up, we should ask forgiveness - opinion

Slihot is a special prayer recited in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So should Israel really be this friendly with Germany?

 ONE OF the Holocaust survivors who accompanied Prime Minister Yair Lapid on his trip to Germanyl ast week stands between the prime minister and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on a visit to the Wannsee Villa. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
ONE OF the Holocaust survivors who accompanied Prime Minister Yair Lapid on his trip to Germanyl ast week stands between the prime minister and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on a visit to the Wannsee Villa.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Slihot is a special prayer recited in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While Sephardi Jews have been saying Slihot since the start of the Jewish month of Elul, Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting Slihot this week. Unlike the regularly recited prayers, Slihot are uniquely designed to ask God for forgiveness for transgressing the Torah. There is a debate as to the origins of Slihot but they are generally considered more than a thousand years old.

Asking forgiveness for offenses we committed is a crucial aspect of Judaism. Maimonides stressed the importance of asking forgiveness, “Sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him. It must be emphasized that even if a person restores the money that he owes the person he wronged, he must appease him and ask him to forgive him.”

Comparing the forgiveness, we ask another person who we’ve offended to the forgiveness we ask of God is problematic. When we commit a crime against another person, we might injure them or cause them financial damage but we’ve also offended them. We aren’t asking forgiveness for the damage we caused, we correct that aspect by reimbursing the victim for their loss. We ask forgiveness for the offense we perpetrated against them.

God, devoid of emotion, doesn’t take offense. When we ask God for forgiveness, we aren’t striving to appease God, but to recognize the division we’ve caused in our relationship with God and attempt to repair that connection.

The English poet Alexander Pope gets the credit for coining the proverb “To err is human, to forgive is Divine” in his poem “An Essay on Criticism, Part II.” While not sourced in classic Jewish sources, Pope’s line is consistent with the Torah’s emphasis on forgiving others. “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge,” wrote Maimonides.

FOREIGN MINISTER Gabi Ashkenazi meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)FOREIGN MINISTER Gabi Ashkenazi meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Can Israel really be friendly with Germany?

Israeli Ambassador to Germany Ron Prosor surprised many Zionists this week when he stated, “German-Israeli relations are the most intense strategic relationship that Israel has with Europe. After the United States of America, this is the most strategic relationship bilaterally that Israel has with any country.” Referring to Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s trip to Germany, Prosor said Lapid is “Coming to Germany because this is the most substantial relationship we have in Europe.” Although the Israeli-German relationship is decades old, can Israel really be this friendly with the same Germany that committed the Holocaust?

My rabbi, Rav Sinai Adler of blessed memory, was a survivor of Germany’s atrocities. He dedicated his life to teaching Torah and the lessons the Jewish people needed to learn from the Holocaust. He was adamant that Germany could never be forgiven for their crimes against the Jewish people and that the average German was responsible – not just the leadership.

I'll never forget when a German family came to visit the yeshiva campus and to everyone’s shock Rav Sinai insisted they be asked to leave the campus. He strongly felt the Talmud’s dictum, “Esau hates Jacob,” which teaches that antisemitism is a natural part of the world always holds true.

He also refused to use the word Nazis, insisting that by using the word Nazis to describe those that perpetrated the Holocaust we were letting the Germans off the hook – something they didn’t deserve. Whether you agree with Rav Sinai’s positions or find them extreme, forgiving Germany and being appeased by their friendly overtures is a complex choice.

The debate of how Israel should relate to Germany was expressed in a contentious dispute between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and then opposition leader Menachem Begin. Ben Gurion had negotiated a series of reparations from Germany that Israel desperately needed. Israel had recently absorbed 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and was drowning in trying to support them. Ben Gurion saw the reparations as the perfect solution to Israel’s refugee problem. Begin vehemently disagreed and characterized reparations as blood money. He felt taking money from Germany would be offering forgiveness the State of Israel had no right to offer.

Germany’s Foreign Office wrote, “Germany has a unique relationship with Israel. This stems from Germany’s responsibility for the Shoah, the systematic genocide of six million European Jews under National Socialism. Since diplomatic relations were established between Germany and Israel on 12 May 1965, the relationship between the two countries has continuously deepened and grown stronger.

Germany is Israel’s most important economic partner in the EU, with bilateral trade worth $6.6 billion (NIS 22.6 b). At the same time concerns have been raised about Germany’s rising antisemitism and support for NGOs in Israel, which work to undermine Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

The debate over the nature of the Jewish state’s relationship with Germany will never end. Both sides of the debate take sensible positions and are simultaneously full of emotion. Many argue that today’s Germany isn’t the same as the Germany of the Holocaust. Germans themselves have changed and are deeply ashamed of their crimes. They argue that the time has come to forgive Germany for its crimes and to build a strong relationship with Germany as an ally. The argument that Germany shouldn’t be forgiven doesn’t believe the Jewish State has the right to forgive Germany for the murder of six million Jews.

As we approach the judgment days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur forgiveness is at the forefront of our minds. We need to gain the forgiveness of our friends and beg for it from God. We also ask ourselves if there are any crimes too heinous to forgive. Giving forgiveness is a Jewish trait we are commanded to master but maybe the Jewish State shouldn’t offer forgiveness for a crime as heinous as the Holocaust.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.