Last month, many in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, gathered for their annual Prayer Breakfast that is held on Good Friday. The guest speakers at the breakfast were Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge – both from Florida and both forever linked to each other by a terrible choice that radically changed their lives.
On May 11, 2002, Eric drove drunk and killed Renee’s daughter Meagan and Meagan’s friend, Lisa Dickson. Both girls were 20 years old. Eric was 24. In 2003, Eric was found guilty of two counts of DUI manslaughter and began serving a 22 year prison term, 11 years for each of the lives he took. However, a few years into his term, Lisa and Meagan’s parents came forward and asked the judge to release Eric early. As a result of much soul searching and discussions with Eric himself, the families felt strongly that he was truly remorseful. Lisa’s parents, said: “in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the humiliation, in the midst of the anger, there is healing.” In 2012, in response to Lisa and Meagan’s parents, Eric was released from prison.
The Torah teaches us that there are times in all of our lives when things get extremely messy, complicated and painful. At these times, we run the risk of becoming “contaminated” by life’s complexities. The Torah explains that even the holiest of men, the priests in the ancient Temple, were not immune to this contamination. The Torah describes how simply suffering from a skin affliction or coming in contact with people who were ritually impure would render a priest contaminated and prevent him from taking part in the holy rituals that defined his life. However, the Torah explains that a priest’s contamination was reversible through a purification process that, once completed, allowed the priest to rejoin his colleagues and perform the rituals of the priesthood. Purification could take place after the sunset on the day that the contamination occurred and required the contaminated priest to immerse himself in water. The details of the purification process are not important. What matters is that the Torah teaches us that contamination need not be a permanent state. Healing is possible.
The deaths of Lisa Dickson and Meagan Napier, the reckless behavior of Eric Smallridge and the grief, pain and anger of the Lisa and Meagan’s families contaminated too many lives. Remarkably, the Dickson and Napier families understood that, while they could never bring their daughters back, they could move beyond the contamination. “I could hate him forever and the world would tell me that I have the right to do that,” explained Renee Napier, “it’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good. I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful. In my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal.” And heal they did. As they did in Sioux City last month, Renee and Eric now speak together about the dangers of DUI and the incredible power of forgiveness.
The Dickson and Napier’s ability to forgive is truly astonishing. Many of us have far less serious issues that continue to contaminate our lives. We struggle with people and events that fill us with anger, frustration and pain – keeping us from fully embracing a meaningful life. The Torah teaches us that like the Dickson and Napier families, we can move beyond this contamination. We do not have to live with it forever. And certainly if the Dickson and Napier families were able to let go, we can as well. It won’t be easy. But, we can forgive. We can purify our lives,. We can start over, living a life of purpose and determination – the kind of life we all deserve.