September 23, 2022
This is a true story about the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. There was a man living next to him in one of the DP camps after the war. One day the man borrowed ten dollars from him and assured Wiesenthal that he had a package coming from a relative any day and would positively pay him back the next week.
At week's end, he had an excuse for not paying, and the next week he had an even better one, and so it went on for almost a year. Finally, one day the man approached Wiesenthal with a ten-dollar bill in hand and said, "My visa has just come through. I'm leaving for Canada tomorrow. Here's the ten dollars I owe you."
Wiesenthal waved him away and said, "No, keep it. For ten dollars it's not worth changing my opinion of you!"
We all know how difficult it is to forgive someone, despite them having worked hard to repair the damage done. Sometimes, even when we do forgive, we remain stuck in a syndrome my friend Rich’s mother embraced with all her heart, which he calls “forgive and remind!”
Some of us have lost family and friendships because we choose to remember the one cutting remark, the one explosive moment--instead of the many more times we felt the constant, abiding love surrounding us. The love we so often take for granted. The world around us, our friendships, our marriages, our brothers and sisters, our parents and children are filled with shortcomings--with occasional pettiness and greed, frustration and anger. But so too are they filled with generosity and kindness, with caresses and comfort, self-sacrifice and love too constant, too deep and profound for words.
Whenever someone comes to speak with me about a moral failure of some kind, before I respond to their story I ask myself a question, “Where is that same flaw in me; not necessarily the identical moral failure, but the same weakness; that feeling of shame? After all, is their sin really all that different from mine or the rest of us? Are we so perfect as never to have stumbled? Mine is not to judge. I leave that to God. I am there to listen and then guide them to the trailhead of change, teshuvah, forgiveness, and redemption.
The High Holy Day prayer book tells us that God remembers the good in each of us despite our mistakes. It also tells us to remember the good in each other and to forgive. "To withhold forgiveness," says the Talmud, "is itself a terrible sin." We all have to make a choice in life and no one can make it for us. Essentially, we all have a choice of memory. We have to choose whose wrong to remember; our own or those of others who have hurt us; the weaknesses of others or our own that we sometimes cannot overcome.
As I grow older I realize, despite my good fortune and freedom, that I and all of us are oppressed by time. It is hard to believe that Rosh Hashanah is here again on the day after tomorrow, or that my dad has been dead for four years and my mom is turning eighty-nine soon. None of us has forever to make peace in our families or our friendships. We do not have forever to say "I was wrong. I have changed. Please forgive me.” We do not have forever to forgive. But we do have this New Year.
"No, the thing is very close to you," says the Torah on this Shabbat just before Rosh Hashanah, "it's in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it...I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live.” This New Year, let us choose life over death by choosing forgiveness over bitterness. Let’s judge others as we too would like to be judged. After all, they, like we, are only human…flawed as we are flawed, wanting most of all to love and be loved.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,