Forgiving the Unforgivable

“Forgiving the Unforgivable”
Rosh haShanah Morning
1 Tishrei 5779
Monday, September 10, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Every year at this season people come to rabbis asking this question: “How can I forgive this person who has done the unforgivable to me?” How can we forgive those who don’t seem to even know how much they’ve hurt us? This turns out to be the same question. In both cases we are dealing with situations when no apology is likely to arrive or ever be good enough. How do we forgive without apologies?

Earlier in this season of repentance, I was reading about John McCain’s life, in the wake of his funeral. Charlie Pierce told this particular story as he reflected on the Senator’s life:

In 1998, when I was traveling with McCain for a profile in Esquire, I asked him if there was anyone involved with the Vietnam War that he couldn’t bring himself to forgive. By then, he had made his peace with the antiwar movement; he delivered the eulogy for an antiwar activist whose speeches from Hanoi had been piped into his cell. He – along with John Kerry – had succeeded in normalizing relations between the United States and Vietnam. He had taken Walter Cronkite on a tour of his old prison. He’d even forgiven the guards who’d beaten and tortured him. A couple of years earlier, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the architects of that bloody misadventure, had written a memoir in which he confessed that he'd known the war was un-winnable as early as 1967, but that he had kept his mouth shut while the country slid more swiftly toward disaster. As it happens, October 26, 1967 was the day that John McCain's fighter jet had taken an anti-aircraft missile over Hanoi. So, I asked him if there was someone he couldn't forgive, or at least talk to, about that awful time. He got all quiet and took a long time to answer.

“McNamara,” he finally said. “That's the worst to me—to know you've made a mistake and to do nothing to correct it while, year after year, people are dying and to do nothing to stop it, to know what your public duty is and to ignore it. I don't think any conversation we could have would be helpful now.”

[From “John McCain’s Funeral Was a Council of War – Just as He Meant It to Be”, by Charles P. Pierce, appearing in Esquire, September 1, 2018]

What about McNamara - did he ever try and apologize? In the Fog of War, a 2003 documentary he said: “I'm very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I've made errors.” As annual Season of Atonement visitors to the art of apologizing, all of us here do not count this as an apology.

While he never issued any other formal apology for his role in the quagmire, McNamara, who died in July 2009 at age 93, made clear he was haunted by the blunders made under his watch that cost the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. “People don't want to admit they made mistakes,” he explained to the New York Times. “This is true of the Catholic Church, it's true of companies, it's true of nongovernmental organizations and it's certainly true of political bodies.” We can see him continuing to not apologize here by explaining it away instead of owning his part and his responsibility.

Here, on the scale of thousands of lives, is a massive mistake, a transgression that hurt so many people - how is this different from what we’re asked to do on this day, at this season, by our tradition?

Maimonides makes the clearest and most thorough Jewish description of atonement. The process starts with confession, leads to a sincere apology, culminates in an agreed upon course of making amends, that finishes up with atonement, the return to a state of peace between the wronged and the transgressor. The transgressor’s transformation needs to be significant and remarkable so that when faced with the situation a subsequent time the mistake is not repeated. The person who is wronged needs to believe this in order to participate in granting full atonement. Atonement is the arrival at a new state of repair and wholeness after the tearing apart that happens with an injury done by one person to another.

This time of year asks a lot of us. Just look at the to-do list even before we get to the prayerbook and its lists of confessions:

        • Prepare our nice clothes

        • Put in the brisket

        • Get or bake challah

        • Ask for forgiveness from everyone I wronged.

We really want to fit forgiveness into a list - it would be so convenient if we could check it off.

Since there is an expiration date on this command to seek forgiveness - we’re supposed to get it done before we come back to worship together on Yom Kippur - the calendar itself may help us reinforce the idea that there is a storehouse of forgiveness that we can easily hand out to people offering a steady supply of apologies from their own box.

Our feelings are not commodities. There is no storage cabinet containing trust, forgiveness, friendship, sisterhood, or brotherhood to dispense at will. And since there’s no storehouse, and while we give ourselves these rigorous times and dates to try and make it all work better, there is no neat and comfortable working out of emotional difficulty.

And this is really very difficult.

The transformation that is required of the transgressor is difficult, and so is finding a way for the wronged person to feel forgiveness towards even a sincere seeker of apologies. When the transgressor comes to us, hat in hand, confessing, apologizing, and offering a path of making amends, it is still difficult to forgive. What do we do when no one comes apologizing, and for all we know, they never will?

You can’t go to someone and say “I’m sorry you made me so angry, apologize, and I will forgive you.”

When you can’t do anything about the person who has wronged you, you feel powerless. You feel cut off from any sort of relating. Again, you are not being asked to apologize in this situation - you want to receive an apology.

We are not commanded to go to someone who has wronged us and ask them to apologize because we did nothing wrong. It’s not our responsibility. Still, you suffer the injury as the person who was wronged.

In order to re-establish our sense of self, our sense of control, we want to reach out and confront that person.

Otherwise, you are stuck with unresolved feelings.

And while the High Holy Days ask us to take responsibility as a transgressor - a doer of wrongs - we who feel wronged are left with a passive role. We are non-actors in a drama that seems to keep on picking on us.

We need to retake control of this story. 

We cannot forgive someone who has not apologized.

Forgiveness, like trust, is not a gift. We cannot open up a box a forgiveness and give it away.

What we can do is explore our anger and our hurt.

We may be attached to the idea that we have to give forgiveness because we want to reassert some control over whatever happened. We want to stop feeling resentful, upset, hurt, and offended. We want our minds to rule over our hearts which continue to feel even when we know it is irrational and we should just heed everyone’s good advice and let it go, let bygones be bygones, and admit that we cannot make changes to relationships and interactions by ourselves.

What we’re looking for is some internal relief. We may call it forgiveness but forgiveness is about the progress between two people not the progress inside my soul. I want to feel “not powerless “ in the face of my own sense of being wronged.

On the other hand, forgiveness could actually be the right word. Maybe we have been applying forgiveness in the wrong direction.

I don’t have to forgive the person who never comes and apologizes.

I have to work on forgiving myself in the face of my own powerlessness.

This is the act of forgiveness I need.

If the formula for atonement requires confession plus apology plus making amends and then leads to atonement, to becoming whole, and we are on our own for the whole process - we are stuck at confession - then we have to work this process in a different way because the expected partner, the transgressor, is not participating.

We start here. We confess to being hurt. We own our own sense of injury.

We apologize to ourselves for judging ourselves so harshly. We didn’t deserve the injury. It came from outside of us. And while we may have been victimized, we don’t have to be victims. 

Think of John McCain - may his memory be for a blessing. He made his peace with the anti-war movement, normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam, and then he resolved to not allow this to happen to other people and fought for it. McCain turned his victimization into a campaign against torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when many people all over the political spectrum were entertaining the idea of “enhanced interrogation” as justifiable. McCain stood up as a former victim on behalf of other victims.

To turn our injury into making amends with the world creates a process of atonement, of forgiveness, that liberates us from the person who did us wrong.

Between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we say that our fates are written and sealed for the New Year. We are in the in between time when we still can make changes before they get sealed, and the gates close at the end of Yom Kippur. I can’t help but feel that we need to give ourselves a little bit more time, and a lot more personal power, to take over this process.

We can be the ones who author our own fates.

Our personal growth and progress is independent of other people’s inability to take responsibility for their actions, and how they impacted us. Let us free ourselves from the people who hurt us.

We can begin this by changing our seasonal greetings a bit.

Instead of “may you be written and sealed” I offer you, “may you find ways to write yourself a better year.”

May we all take control of our stories, find the forgiveness we need for ourselves, and create a narrative that gets us past the people who will never apologize.

May we write ourselves a better book of life, for a better New Year.

L’Shanah Tovah.