When I lived in Mississippi, the Mississippi Museum of Art had an exhibition entitled, “Between God and Man: Angels in Italian Art”. Almost a dozen of the paintings focused on the binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, which we read for today. Each painting represented the most dramatic moment –when the angel calls to Abraham and stops the sacrifice, the moment that is represented in the text as the pause after the angel says Abraham’s name the first time [Genesis 22:11] . In one painting Isaac is so young, barely in his teens; in another he is a grown man in his twenties or thirties. For one artist, there is a tension in Abraham’s arm as his hand holds the knife, as if the angel is physically restraining him from making the sacrifice. Absent is any portrayal of the aftermath of that traumatic moment.
After the ram has been offered as a sacrifice instead of Isaac, after God promises blessings on Abraham’s descendants, presumably after Isaac has been untied and released from the altar, we read vayashav Avraham ‘el na’arav v’yakumu vayeilchu yachdav ‘el be’er shava Abraham returns to his servants and together they go to Beersheva [Genesis 22:19]. Isaac is not mentioned. We next see Isaac, not at his mother Sarah’s funeral in Kiryat Arba’ah, but after his father’s servant brings him a bride. The next time we see Isaac and Abraham in the same frame, Abraham is dead, and Ishmael and Isaac are burying him [Genesis 25:9].
I cannot help but wonder at what happened between the two of them afterwards. Did the two of them ever talk about the event? Did the family ever discuss what happened? Did Abraham feel remorse? Did Abraham ask Isaac for forgiveness? Did Isaac forgive Abraham?
Our focus is on repentance at this season. We are in the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the 10 days of repentance. But we tend to forget that repentance requires forgiveness. The individual, who has wronged another, repents. The one who has been wronged, whether it is God or another person, forgives. It is forgiveness that I wish to speak about today.
Speaking about forgiveness is so much easier than speaking about repentance. When we think about the things for which we must repent, we are uncomfortable. We do not like admitting that we were wrong. We do not want to be the person who has hurt someone else. The process of repentance is designed to make us vulnerable, so that we can change and become different persons.
Being the person who has been wronged is something completely different. There is the pain and betrayal that we feel in response to the situation, but we have a certain power as the wronged party. We know that we were right. We have our anger. We have our hopes for revenge. We imagine them groveling as they ask for forgiveness, and whether or not we might bestow that forgiveness. When we look back at the past year it is easy to skip over the things that we have done wrong or minimize them even as we focus on the wrongs done to us.
For Jews, forgiveness is not carte blanche to be given to anyone and everyone before they even ask for it, while we pretend that everything is fine. Forgiving is not forgetting. An insistence that we forgive everyone automatically, immediately, diminishes our role in the process of repentance. Automatic forgiveness compounds the original betrayal. To let the offender off, without any repentance, harms them, preventing them from going through the process as they should, depriving them of the chance to really change. It is not merciful to anyone to deny what happened, to smooth things over, to make things alright, despite what family, friends, and others might say.
And that assumes that the perpetrator will ask for forgiveness. We all know of those who will never ask for forgiveness, those who will never acknowledge the wrong that they have done. We also know of those who will reflexively ask and never mean it; those who say “I’m sorry.” And really mean, “I guess I have to say this so we can talk about something else now.”
If forgiveness is not automatic pardon and not the denial of what has happened, then what is it?
Forgiveness is a process. We acknowledge what has happened and the effects that it has had in our lives. We understand that the people who have hurt us are just that, people with faults and problems. We rearrange the importance of the event in our lives as we come realize that there is nothing that we can do to change the people who have hurt us and we no longer want to be bound to them or to the event. And we go on with our lives.
The powerful emotions of anger and revenge, of knowing that we are right and we have been wronged can be seductive. Without forgiveness, we are confined to a torment of emotions and a prison of revenge. Not a healthy place physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Without forgiveness we are confined to the past, carrying our burdens with us, without respite.
There is the famous story of the two monks on a pilgrimage who came to a ford of a river. There they saw a beautiful woman dressed in a flowing silk dress who couldn’t figure out what to do since the river was so high. Without a second thought, one of the monks lifted her onto his back, carried her across the river and put her down on dry land on the other side.
Then the monks continued on their way. After two hours of walking in silence, the second monk couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned to the first and complained, “How could you carry woman, when it’s against our sacred vows to even touch a woman?” The monk who had carried the girl across the river responded, “I set her down by the river two hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
How many of us are like that monk? Carrying around our silent resentments, hour after hour, day after day, year after year? Even without the physical weight of carrying someone, they weigh heavily on us. We carry them far longer than we need to. We magnify our hurts to become the biggest part of our lives, the reason for the way things are. We allow what has happened to us to define us, to prevent our growth as people. To not forgive keeps us in the same place, and like a pot too small for the roots of a plant, it becomes more and more confining and more and more painful.
We expect those who have wronged us to move forward and grow. Remaining trapped in the past by the things that they have done, keeps us with them, sometimes imprisoned in their stead. If the other person grows enough to change and truly repent, will we be ready to forgive them? If the other person never grows through the process of repentance, why should we be the ones to suffer, to remain imprisoned by their actions? And that is what forgiveness offers us, release from the suffering, ease from the burdens of our resentments. Forgiveness has the power to ease our hurts, without waiting for anyone else. Forgiveness is more important for us than for the person who is penitent. The truly repentant person can get forgiveness even if we refuse to forgive them three times. Forgiveness frees us from self-pity. Forgiveness allows us to know what happened is not what we are, but what they are. Forgiveness allows us to redefine ourselves.
The Norwegian writer, Johan Bojer, tells of a man whose little child was killed by a neighbor’s dog. Revenge would not long satisfy this man, so he found a better way to relieve the agony of his heart. When a famine had plagued the people and the neighbor’s fields lay bare and he had no corn to plant for next year’s harvest, the troubled father went out one night and sowed the neighbor’s field, explaining: “I went and sowed seed in my enemy’s field that God might exist.”