RE:VERB FORTY-FOUR / SHOFTIM / FORGIVE
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Graffiti, Rome 2009
(photo by Amichai)
Wearing a tailored blue suit, a single strand of pearls and clutching the last of her fur coats, Ruth Madoff stood facing her angry accuser – Sondra, her sister in law. Sondra, who lost everything because of her brother Bernie, demanded an apology from Ruth, and full retribution, and if possible - revenge. Ruth was sad, but defiant, refusing to take responsibility for her husband’s actions or take any of the blame. “I, too, am a victim” she said, “The man who committed these crimes – who had this affair with some Hadassah lady– was not the same man I married. My life is, also, ruined. I should have paid more attention to what was going on. Please forgive me”.
But Sondra didn’t want to – and neither did we, who were watching. Must one always forgive?
Sitting there, on a lawn in a pretty park in Denver, this past Saturday afternoon and watching this scene, we were torn between compassion and fury. Can we forgive her and let her get on with her life? Or do we side with Sondra who demands further punishment for the woman who represents, by proxy, her terrible losses? Or both? At some point I got real angry at Ruth Madoff. “Yes” I said to her, my teeth clenched, “pay attention to what’s around you – but first – pay up!” She looked at me sadly and said nothing. My anger had nowhere to go. Frustration beat forgiveness, and it didn’t feel good.
These weren’t the real Madoffs up there on the lawn – these were two talented women who are members of the Mile High Mavens – the Storahtelling Colorado Cohort, about to complete a year long training program. As part of their training to be Storah-Mavens who translate Torah into modern ritual theater, these two ‘actors’ – Caryn and Birdie (who in real life are a cantor and a university professor), chose to interpret the weekly Torah portion of Shoftim in ultra contemporary garb. The Torah text, dealing mostly with matters of capital punishment and other judicial matters as savory as stoning, provided a perfect pretext for a public conversation about crime and punishment, and about the limits of forgiveness. 70 people gathered on the lawn in Denver’s Crestmoor Park– adults, children – mostly but not entirely Jewish audience members, and among them 7 rabbis – of every single denomination – including 2 of Denver’s leading Orthodox rabbis along with their families. The Mile High Mavens put on a great Storahtelling program, and the very diverse audience, interacted and offered a variety of responses. “Everybody deserves a second chance” – a nine year old girl spoke up. “Why is she walking away with 2.5 million??” somebody else shouted.
Perhaps we all deserve second (and more) chances to perfect ourselves, but are there limits to our ability to forgive others for inflicting harm on society? Are there times when forgiveness is just not OK?
Later that night I got this email from L.: “I've been thinking a lot about the Torah portion and the way you presented it because my cousin was just diagnosed with Hep C, infected by the drug addict who stole syringes at Rose Medical Center and replaced them with used saline syringes, infecting 21 innocent patients, including my cousin. She's been wrestling with the sense of violation and anger and sadness, not to mention agonizing over which horrible treatment option she will choose (one-year of chemo). I wonder if I could forgive, or if one is even supposed to. But your presentation laid all these issues bare.”
In Shoftim (literally ‘judges’) there is the description of a unique ritual that begs for forgiveness. Chapter 21 in D’varim outlines the theoretical situation in which a human corpse is discovered in a no-man’s-land –between two cities. The corpse is that of a murdered person, but there is no evidence as to who the killer was – this is way pre CSI. The elders measure the distance from the corpse to every one of the nearby cities – and the closest one is presumed the guilty source of trouble, the place from which the murderer emerged. The leaders of that city are then instructed to behead a young cow at a nearby river and to publicly exclaim: 'our hands did not spill this blood.' And then they turn to God and appeal for forgiveness for yet another terrible human act:
‘Forgive, O God, Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of your people Israel. And the blood shall be forgiven them.’ (D'varim 21:8)
This bizarre ritual is based on the notion of responsibility – and the possibility of forgiveness. As Sondra said this last Saturday – ‘somebody has to pay, somehow’.
The word ‘forgive’ in this context is the Hebew ‘Kaper’ – translated elsewhere at ‘atone’ or ‘absolve’. Kaper is the root of the word Kippurim – atonement – as in the Day of Atonement – exactly 40 days from today.
Today is the first day of the last month of the Jewish year – Elul. It’s the kickoff for the High Holidays, a reminder to get one’s affairs settled, to clean up whatever messes this year has seen emerge, all bad blood. Anybody I need to ask forgiveness from? Anybody I need to forgive? What’s my unfinished business in terms of human affairs, commitments made and neglected, hurts intentionally or unintentionally committed? How do I prepare myself to lead the life I really want to live – with more integrity, responsibility, compassion, accountability? And, also, what do I do with the rage, and the pain, and the knowledge that there are people in my life who I’m mad at (Madoff somewhere on the bottom of the list) and it’s just hard to forgive them? Do I send them a “Happy Jew Year” and smile when I see them next? Do I confront them? Is it just hard to forgive some people – or actually impossible?
Perhaps it’s a case by case scenario. Perhaps, like the elders and judges of yore, we are each to measure the distance from the corpses and wounds of our lives to the nearest people and memories, and there, choose how to take responsibility or demand answers – for whatever bad blood remains – as long as the hurt is not ignored. And then – minus the headless cow ceremony – appeal to the universal compassion that some name ‘God’ and hope, and pray, and appeal – for the ability to forgive – not forget – and be granted a second chance at being the best possible human being around – for everybody’s benefit.
At the end of the Storahtelling program in the park, people were called up to the Torah, for the honor of an Aliyah – an ascent onto the tale. Bruce, the lead Maven, invited those who seek justice and want to make the world a better place, to come up. Ruth Madoff rose, once again, and stood by the Torah scroll, and said the blessing. Sondra joined her. These were just actors, I know, but this was also real. For one minute, in front of a temporary community, all was forgiven, and hopes, and the possibility of redemption, were all that mattered. They chanted the blessing, and we answered ‘Amen’.