This reflection was written in 2010. The writer’s father, who is mentioned in the article, died on March 22, 2013. For a profile, read A Traveler Comes Home
My father, a Holocaust survivor, recently sent me his translation of part of a prayer that observant Orthodox Jews around the world say before going to bed:
I herewith forgive all those who have angered or taunted me,
all those who have sinned against my person,
my wealth, my possessions or my honor,
through compulsion, knowingly with malice, or in ignorance,
by their words or by their deeds.
No one should suffer punishment because of me.1
Amazing! I read it again. “I herewith forgive all...” Yes, it said “all”. No exceptions. Imagine people around the world saying that every night. Can it be that sixty-five years ago, Jews prayed this prayer even in the concentration camps or at the doors of the gas chambers?
I know that the early Christian martyr Stephen prayed for his tormentors before he was stoned to death as have other martyrs from different religions throughout history. Perhaps this could be a prayer for saints, I thought. But what about for you and me? How does such an attitude fit in with our human sense of justice, where wrongs need to be righted first, before one can move on? In my books, the wrongdoer should at least come begging on his knees for forgiveness first. A comment from Rabbi Danzinger of the Chabad movement gave me an insight:
According to the strict letter of the law: “If someone wrongs us and sincerely asks us for our forgiveness, we must forgive them – provided that they have compensated us for any actual damages.” Acting beyond the letter of the law, we ought to forgive others even if they do not ask for, or even want, our forgiveness.2
So the nightly prayer comes from a place beyond the letter of the law and devout Jews around the world are prepared to go to that place “beyond” every night. Imagine if Christians adopted the same practice! I have a sense that this is the place where healing for our broken world could be found. But how do we get to such a place?
I gained some more insight from another remarkable rabbinical quote I came across: “If even one person does authentic teshuva (repentance or turning around), it is enough to forgive the entire world.3”
Does that really mean that all we have to do is to genuinely turn away from our wrongs or sins for the whole world to become new? How would that change anything? We all know how our society is teeming with countless broken and hurting lives that desperately need healing.
When my father talks about forgiveness he always says, “If I realize how much I myself need forgiveness, it is easy to forgive others for where they have hurt me. And when one person can forgive, it starts a cycle of forgiveness that will spread.” Maybe that is part of the meaning of the quote about teshuva.
At the end of the day, of course, the question still remains: Will I be able to take this prayer of forgiveness with me not only into the peace of night-time, but also to hold onto it in the hard light of the next day? And what about you?
1. Jewish Prayer book (Siddur) pg 181 Published by Zionist World Organisation Education and Culture Dept for Diaspora Printed in Jerusalem 5784 (1984?) Moreshet Publishing House.
3. T.B. Yoma 86b; Otzar Midrashim, Gadol u'Gedualah 6.