judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b

high holy days · judaism · torah

Not everything must be forgiven

Not everything must be forgiven.

Earlier in the year, I went to a Holocaust Survivors Centre to deliver a service. After we had sung songs, discussed Torah and celebrated the day, I went to join some of the survivors to eat.

We sat and chatted. They were all elderly, but brimmed with life. These refugees, mostly women, who had survived camps and treacherous journeys to get here, seemed to possess a vitality I rarely saw in people my own age.

They talked about their grandchildren, their local community and their synagogues. But they wasted no time getting to the really gritty questions. “Why should I believe in God after what happened to us?” “Did God let that happen to us?” “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I bashfully tried to answer their questions, often replying that I did not know.

But then one of them asked a question to which I did know the answer. To which I was in no doubt. She asked me: “Do I have to forgive the Nazis?”

“No,” I said. “No you do not have to forgive the Nazis.”

I did not cite a Torah verse or a scholar or a halachah. I just said no. There are things that are unforgivable, and I was taken aback at even the suggestion that a survivor could forgive the Nazis for what they did.

Not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be forgiven. Not everything can be forgiven.

We have reached Elul. The new month has begun and we have entered the last lunar cycle of the year, taking us through to Rosh Hashanah. This is our season of contemplation and reflection; of apology and of forgiveness. In this time, it is natural that we want to unburden ourselves of the guilt we have clung to.

Forgiveness is supposed to be the release of resentment and vengeance when we feel we have been wronged. With it ought to come a feeling of relief and a sense of restitution in the world.

Yet, so far, I have encountered far more people struggling because they cannot forgive than because they cannot apologise. I think it is important to stress: you do not have to forgive everything and you cannot be expected to forgive everyone.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “for transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions between human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone, unless the wronged party forgives.”[1] Judaism has no absolution. Our religion teaches that you must work to earn forgiveness, and guilt cannot be magically removed by prayer.

Even then, there are sins that can never be forgiven. For the most heinous crimes, like murder, even God does not forgive.[2]

We must assume that God does not forgive such an act because no human being could. Murder is irreversible in a way that other acts or not. The murdered person is not alive to forgive; no family member could forgive on their behalf. Even if they could, nobody could reasonably ask the family member of a murdered person to provide forgiveness, because it would take a super-human level of magnanimity.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses creates cities of refuge throughout Canaan.[3] In ancient Israelite culture, the relatives of murdered people were not only not asked to forgive. They were expected to kill the killer as a matter of honour. Such a person was called a “blood redeemer.” They were required to avenge their family member’s killer, even in a case of accidental manslaughter.[4]

Moses established the cities of refuge so that the accidental manslaughterer would have somewhere to run. The killer could live there and escape being killed. Although they would need to start a new life, they would not be executed by the blood-redeemer, nor punished by the courts.

What is noteworthy about this system is how compassionate it is. There are times when people commit crimes and there is nobody at fault. Deuteronomy gives the example of a wood-chopper’s axe that backfires and kills a co-worker.[5] In this case, it would be improper to try the killer as a murderer, because there was no malice.

Yet, more importantly, it is compassionate to the victims. It does not ask the victim’s family to abandon their anger, but builds in an assumption that there would be raw feelings that would never be resolved within the court system. Rather than tell them to forgive, Moses establishes systems that mitigate their anger and prevent a cycle of violence.

Moses knew that not everything could be forgiven. That principle follows us through to this day. During the Second World War, Simon Wiesenthal, who was interred in the concentration camps, met an SS officer, who begged his forgiveness. The Nazi, on his death bed, admitted to having killed over 300 Jews by burning down their house and shooting at those who escaped. He said that he needed a Jew to forgive him. Wiesenthal did not.

Over the years, Wiesenthal contemplated whether he should have forgiven the Nazi after all. He wrote to thinkers across the world, including rabbis, philosophers, judges, priests and historians, asking for their view. He collected all their letters back into a volume called ‘The Sunflower’.[6] Of the respondents, not one Jew said he should forgive.

Most of those who said he should forgive replied as Christians, and said they would do as ambassadors for Jesus. Yet there is a more compelling answer offered by Jose Hobday,[7] who was a Catholic priest of Native American descent. He wrote of his experiences as an indigenous person in North America, experiencing genocide and persecution. He explains how those experiences and indigenous spirituality had taught him to forgive, not for the sake of his oppressors, but for the sake of himself. That forgiveness helped him transcend the wrongs that were done to him and his people. That if he did not forgive, it would only make him feel worse.

Yes, if forgiving will make you feel better, then you can do so for your own sake. But believing that you have to forgive when you cannot will only make you feel worse. Sometimes it is necessary for hurt people to hold on to their hurt and not relinquish it through forgiveness.

So, for your own sake, go into this Elul knowing that you do not need to forgive everything. You do not need to forgive those who have not made amends and you do not need to forgive what is beyond your capacity.

Judaism is not about creating perfect people, absolved of blemishes and able to exercise the infinite mercy we expect of God. It is about accepting we are real people, who make real mistakes, learn from them and try to improve. It is about accepting that we are vulnerable people, who are capable of hurting and being hurt, and who might not find resolution in this lifetime.

Work on what you can change in yourself. Apologise for what you have done wrong. Forgive where you can forgive.

But know that not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be. Not everything can.

Shabbat shalom.

sunflowers

I will give this sermon on Saturday 22nd August at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1]Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[2]Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a

[3]Deuteronomy 19:1-3

[4]Deuteronomy 19:6

[5]Deuteronomy 19:5

[6]Schocken Books, 1970

[7]Chapter 23