Many of us have been in awe of the families of those murdered last week at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Somehow, someway, these families were able to forgive the man who killed their loved ones. This forgiveness is an integral part of their religion. For them, granting forgiveness is a tremendous gift of love that they can bestow on another person – a gift, they believe, is inspired and expected by God
As I spoke about a few weeks ago at Kabbalat Shabbat services, part of me envies those who are so quick to forgive and let go. Some of you know that I had a great-aunt who was murdered many years ago. I openly admit I don’t have it in me to forgive my great-aunt’s killer. I can’t get my head around some folks’ ability to forgive people who murder and cause so much destruction and, on top of this, link forgiveness to God.
While I certainly don’t believe in a God that punishes us, I do not believe in a God that – “poof” – just forgives people for their wrongdoings simply because they ask for forgiveness. Again, I don’t believe in a God that punishes us, but I do believe that we have the right and obligation to punish those who do wrong.
A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah about how Miriam and her brother Aaron are caught by God as they gossiped about their brother Moses. Miriam starts the gossiping, talking in a negative way about her sister-in-law, Moses’ wife. The gossip-fest continues as Miriam and Aaron ask: “Who does Moses think he is acting all powerful? What, is he better than us?”
God hears the gossip. Remember, Judaism teaches us that gossip is equivalent to murder since wicked words can destroy a person’s reputation and, therefore, destroy a person’s life. So gossip is not a petty crime. Because of this, God inflicts Miriam (not Aaron – this is a whole other conversation) with a terrible skin affliction that requires her to be removed from the community and put in isolation outside of the camp where she is confined for seven days until the skin affliction clears up.
Some might say that Miriam’s punishment – a skin infliction that heals and seven days of isolation – is not a severe punishment for such a serious crime. But let’s look at the symbolism surrounding Miriam seven-day punishment. As you know, God created the world in six days and relaxed on the seventh day. Over seven days, the entire world was created and the Creator was able to rest. Seven days represent everything, a lifetime, wholeness. This is the reason a little boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It is after living seven full days that he is considered a complete human being – having lived a whole cycle of life on earth. So, some might say that Miriam is punished for only seven days. But those seven days are symbolic of a lifetime. Her punishment is no small thing.
The Torah teaches us that Miriam has to face the consequences of her actions. We don’t see God sweeping in and forgiving her. Moses actually tries to get God to do just this, begging God to heal his sister, but it doesn’t work. As we read the Torah, we see Miriam being called on the carpet and paying the price for her crime. Yes, eventually, once her seven days are up, she rejoins the people and they begin journeying once again in the desert, making their way to the Promised Land.
It is interesting to note that the Torah teaches us that the people wait for Miriam while she serves her punishment. They remain in place while she does her time outside of the camp. The people appreciate that the punishment process has to proceed as planned. Once it runs its course – Miriam comes home and everyone moves on. She is forgiven. But it takes time – time to heal, time for Miriam to face the consequences, time for the people to forgive.
My heartaches for the families who lost loved ones in Charleston. The senseless act of hatred and violence that took their loved ones from them is proof that evil does exist. Yes, part of me envies those who have been able to forgive the Charleston killer so quickly, but it is just a small part of me. While I do not stand in judgment of those who have forgiven him, my Jewish view of forgiveness, so powerfully expressed in the story of Miriam’s punishment, teaches me that forgiveness takes time. One can be forgiven. This is an essential part of our faith – just think about the High Holidays. Each of us can forgive and be forgiven. But, as we learn by Miriam’s symbolic seven-day punishment – forgiveness can’t be rushed. When people face the consequences of their actions, when punishments are served, when people truly learn from their mistakes and truly change, when genuine remorse is expressed – this is when forgiveness can be given.
Certainly, we can choose to forgive someone before she has to face the consequences of her poor choices. As I mentioned, even Moses tries to get his sister off the hook before she is exiled from the camp. But the story of Miriam’s punishment does not condone this path. Judaism does not teach us about a God that forgives simply because the sinner believes and proclaims her faith. Judaism does not teach us that by quickly forgiving others we make ourselves and the world a better place. No. Judaism teaches us that forgiveness is a process that requires the “sinner” to do her time, change her ways and earn back the trust she lost by acting inappropriately. Judaism also expects the one who did wrong to seek forgiveness from those she has wronged. This is part of the process. (It is important to point out that once someone has faced the consequences and sincerely asks us for forgiveness three times, if we refuse to grant forgiveness, we become the “sinner”. Something to think about.)
To forgive when there is no remorse, to forgive when there are no consequences, to forgive because we love the sinner and hate the sin – this is not the Jewish way. It does not teach the sinner. It does not encourage change. It does nothing to make the world a better place.
May we all find within ourselves the strength and courage to forgive those who have hurt us, but may we do so in a way that insures that lessons are learned and lives are changed for the better.