The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Tonight we begin our spiritual journey with a celebration of Yom Kippur—a holiday that is wholly devoted to the cultivation of forgiveness and spiritual renewal—both as individuals and as a community.
“I have forgiven you as you have spoken” Fewer subjects personally challenge our moral sensibilities like forgiveness—both as individuals and as a society.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is important for us to revisit some of the important questions about the nature and dynamics of forgiveness.
But what are the limitations of forgiveness? What are its possibilities? Should a person forgive unconditionally?
In Jewish tradition, it is often customary to broach an important topic with a story.
You are a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. You are sent to work in a hospital. A nurse brings you to a German soldier named Karl, who is mortally wounded. The dying soldier confesses that he has committed terrible atrocities against your people and asks you to forgive him. What would you do? ‘
Actually, this was the question faced by renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and is the focus of his autobiographical novel, The Sunflower. Wiesenthal took the soldier’s hand listened to his story.
The patient recounted a horrible act in which he had participated. All of the Jews, mothers with infants and children, young and old, were rounded up and crowded into a large yellow house. The commanding officer ordered the house to be set afire.
When the Jews started running from the burning building and jumping out windows, the commander ordered the troops to fire. After telling the story, the patient asked Wiesenthal if he would forgive him for his role in the massacre.
Ultimately, young Wiesenthal walks away in silence. He can’t forgive the man. But his own soul is scorched with the agony of his decision to walk away. Liberated from the camps, Wiesenthal seeks out the dead soldier’s mother to ease his mind. He finds a broken woman, left with nothing but the good memory of her son.
Wiesenthal decided not to tell her of her son’s confessed atrocities, his silence brings him peace of mind. He couldn’t forgive the soldier for the murder of others; he can spare an old woman suffering.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO FORGIVE?
Wiesenthal later wrote, “Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is a choice, and only the person who suffers is qualified to forgive”
As the years went by, his conscience still haunts him: Did I do the right thing in refusing to forgive the SS soldier? What do you think? Are there some crimes that simply cannot be forgiven?
When Wiesenthal first printed his book, there was a remarkable range of responses. Most Jewish respondents felt that Wiesenthal was right in not forgiving the dying Nazi. How could a mass-murderer be forgiven?
Did Karl truly repent? Only God knows, but it is possible that he took a significant meaningful first step toward some form of redemption . . . The rest of his journey can only continue in the World of Eternity . . . As I mentioned earlier, The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
In Karl’s case, we cannot confuse the beginning of a journey with its ending. It seems only apropos for the souls of the victims to deal with the souls of their perpetrators on their own terms. But regardless how one views the story, this much is known: Could either young Simon or Karl have ever imagined that their mysterious encounter would challenge the moral sensibilities of countless millions of people across time?
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