Yom Kippur in Buenos Aires, 1945. I stood next to my father as we prayed with our small community in a rented room in the Jewish Old Age Home. The men were wrapped in white shawls, called a kittel, a symbol of the angels in heaven and a reminder of death, for it was also the shroud in which they would be buried. Almost everyone was crying—the men and, seated in a separate section, the women. The first real information about the concentration camps and the deaths of millions of Jews was beginning to be known all over the world.
I looked at my father, wrapped in his white kittel; he was praying and crying, reciting the severe but moving prayers of confession:
We have sinned against You by rashly judging others; and we have sinned against You by selfishness. We have sinned against You through stubbornness; and we have sinned against You through gossip. We have sinned against You through baseless hatred; and we have sinned against You by succumbing to dismay.
One could hear the inner crying of the souls gathered in that small room and in the hearts of Jews around the world, taking responsibility for the sins of each and every member of the Jewish community and asking God’s forgiveness. Suddenly, my father raised his arms toward heaven and I heard him scream, “Farvos, Farvos” (Yiddish for “Why? Why?”), beseeching God for a reason for the mass murders that had wiped out almost all of his family and most of European Jewry.
I was frightened and in awe that my father would challenge God for answers to the inexplicable reality of evil. What had been done to our people was unforgivable. Yet, I reflected, the liturgy of Yom Kippur calls upon us to forgive those who truly repent and ask our pardon, even people like the perpetrators of the Holocaust. This is one of the greatest challenges of my religious life.
Lev 23:23-32 instructs us that the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is observed 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is the most holy and solemn day in the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath of Sabbaths on which no work may be done and a fast day on which we deny our bodies in order to focus on our souls. It is a time of penitence, of asking God for forgiveness and promising a change of heart.
Teshuvah, repentance, is central in the prayers of the 10 days of the High Holy Days that conclude with Yom Kippur. On this day we ask pardon for our transgressions against God. Forgiveness is not granted simply because we ask for it, but because we have sincerely repented and vow to do better. Pardon is not granted to those who do not genuinely atone.
Granting Forgiveness: Lessons from Jonah
Yom Kippur is also a day on which we must forgive other people who sincerely repent.
Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azryah states, “For the transgression of a person against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions against another person, the Day of Atonement does not atone, unless and until that one has reconciled with the other and redressed the wrong that person has done to him or her.”
Along with the reckoning of the soul, the granting of forgiveness is central to the liturgy of Yom Kippur. The prophetic reading for the second day of Yom Kippur is from the Book of Jonah, the prophet who was asked to inform Nineveh of the impending doom of its sinful population. When the inhabitants of the city repented and were spared God’s wrath, Jonah was angry. God was satisfied with the genuine and heartfelt repentance of the people of Nineveh. But instead of being happy that fellow human beings had been spared, Jonah was embarrassed that his prophecy, which God commanded him to announce publicly, was not fulfilled. God had to teach Jonah the importance of forgiveness by showing him the value of each and every life on earth.
One of the lessons of Jonah is to make us think about our duty to forgive other people regardless of how we feel about them. For me, this is one of the most difficult requirements of the Yom Kippur liturgy. On almost every Yom Kippur, one thought comes to my mind in the midst of my prayers: What would happen if a former Nazi, an Argentinean torturer or some terrorist who has killed innocent people should ask me for forgiveness? Can I, as an individual Jew, offer forgiveness?
I was not in the Holocaust, I was not imprisoned and tortured in Argentina, and so far, I have lost no relative to a terrorist’s bombs or to the Hezbollah missiles aimed at civilian populations in Israel. But according to Abraham J. Heschel, a 20th-century Jewish theologian, “The Jew does not stand alone before God; he is a member of the community that stands before God. Our direct relationship with God is not as an ‘I to a thou,’ but as a ‘we to a thou.’”
This is evident in the fact that all the prayers of confession and asking forgiveness in the liturgy are recited in the plural. Therefore, although I might not have suffered directly at the hands of a Nazi or an Argentinean general or a terrorist, I have the authority to offer forgiveness to any individual who deserves it.
Forgiveness is not automatically given, however. Like the king of Nineveh, the person who is asking for it goes through a process of inner transformation and response called Teshuvah. A transgressor who violates the covenant with God ruptures the God-person relationship. Teshuvah is the process by which this break is mended and the covenant renewed.
The medieval Jewish theologian Maimonides points out in his commentary on Teshuvah that, “Even if a man has sinned his whole life and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven to him.” Yet while the human being has the possibility of God’s forgiveness for sins committed against God up to the last minute of his or her life, sins we commit against other people are not absolved until the injured party has forgiven the perpetrator.
The importance of this concept is expressed in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement when we seek forgiveness from each other in order to prepare our individual selves and the community to receive God’s forgiveness. It is also expressed in the liturgy, specifically the tractate Shabbat 151b of the Talmud, which stresses:
All who act mercifully [i.e., forgivingly] to their fellow creatures will be treated mercifully by Heaven, and all who do not act mercifully toward their fellow creatures will not be treated mercifully by Heaven.
A Twofold Process
The concept of confession and repentance is not intended to be a mechanical formula for total forgiveness or absolution, but entails inner cleansing through reparation, restitution and reconciliation with the person who has been wronged. Our rabbinic scholars say that in the presence of three witnesses, one must ask three times the pardon of the person he has offended (Talmud Yona 87a).
Our tradition maintains that forgiveness is a twofold process, in which one person forgives and the other person undergoes a profound change in his personal life. It is a transformation of the spirit by which the offender returns to God and alters his inner being after confessing his transgressions. Once again the person recognizes a moral and ethical obligation of being a human created by God and following God’s moral commandments. But as I pray on Yom Kippur, I ask myself, Is it really my obligation as a Jew to forgive my enemies? Must I forgive a Nazi or the terrorists who are causing chaos and death in the world? In my prayers I realize that the question should be quite different. I should pray that the terrorist, the torturer or the Nazi can transform himself so he is deserving of forgiveness and is truly a better person.
True atonement has always been central to forgiveness in Jewish theology; and in a century that has experienced the total evil of the Holocaust and other forms of genocide, it is even more crucial. For the Jew, forgiveness entails a corresponding act, such as a change of heart in the sinner, who becomes a person devoted to the concrete work of peace, improving the welfare of others and overcoming his previous evil behavior. The torturer, the terrorist or the S.S. officer has to become a tool of goodness to merit forgiveness. Otherwise forgiveness becomes essentially an act of forgetting the crime and enabling the criminal to accept his evil behavior as consistent with God’s ways.
Loving One’s Enemy
The Jewish tradition suggests that we must wish for this transformation in the sinner, because we are commanded not to hate our enemies. Rather, the Scriptures tell us, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exalt” (Prov 24-17), as well as, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat. If he is thirsty, give him drink” (Prov 25:21).
Acts of lovingkindness toward one’s enemies are considered in Judaism to be part of biblical law. In Exod 23:5 we are told, “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” The rabbinic commentary amplifies this concept: “A person goes along the road and sees that the ass of an enemy has fallen under its burden. The person goes over and gives the enemy a hand to unload and reload…then they go to an inn and the ass driver thinks, ‘So and so loves me so much, and I thought he hated me.’ Immediately they talk to each other and make peace.”
I wish with all my heart that this would be a reality between all peoples in our time. Personally, however, it is very difficult for me to forgive those who have committed so many crimes against my people and the other people who are today suffering the horrors of genocide or bloody civil wars. I ask myself, why can I not accept the possibility of being able to forgive the other person? Why do I not more readily believe in the possibility of their transformation? Am I a cynic or a realist to find it difficult to believe that an S.S. officer could ever really ever transform his soul, or a terrorist (who has an ideology of death that promises him the very best in the other world in exchange for the murder of innocents) could change, or that the Argentine torturer who killed some of my friends could truly understand the evil he committed and repent?
Yes, I find it hard to believe, and yet I know that God believes people are capable of true repentance. So perhaps I too can believe it if I follow the requirements set by the rabbis that the sinner confess, completely transform his or her heart and pursue a life of virtue and goodness that helps society. Being able to forgive is another of God’s gifts to us, for my forgiveness of such a repentant sinner is not only the beginning of his or her healing, but also of my own.
At the end of the Yom Kippur service, we are all tired and hungry, yet uplifted. The haunting Kol Nidre prayer has besought God to annul any vows we made to God that we failed to fulfill, and we have received divine forgiveness. I have been pardoned for the transgressions against God for which I have truly repented, and I am charged with hope and determination to be a better person in the new year.
Therefore, however difficult, I will try to follow this holy example and forgive those who genuinely repent of the crimes they have committed against my people or anyone else. This is the way to true healing and an important step toward mending the world.