Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
On a day when the headlines scream of innocents being brutalized throughout the world and of a revered pastor being buried in South Carolina, at the same time we see signs, here in America, at least, that society has become more inclusive and caring. This week’s landmark rulings by the Supreme Court have only intensified that sense, including today’s approving same-sex marriage nationally.
I attended a local vigil this week for Charleston victims, with people representing several different faiths coming together in shared sadness and love. Nothing that comes as a result of such madness can ever be called good, but the fact that this tragedy has brought communities closer is one positive that can’t be denied.
I’ve always had trouble with the idea of forgiving someone who does a heinous act, especially when that person is so filled with hate. Turning the other cheek is not a Jewish thing – we forgive, but not instinctively, and especially when the act is so evil.
Still, a speech at my community’s vigil by Inni Kaur, a representative of the local Sikh community, helped me to understand what this is about, as she reflected on her own faith group’s experiences.
It should be noted that the Sikh community suffered a similar massacre, at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012. Unfortunately, no religious group is immune to such attacks. Among the most appalling recently was the shooting at the Jerusalem synagogue in late 2014.
Mosques too are often attacked, including today’s massacre in Kuwait. In many cases, it is Muslims attacking Muslims, just as the Charleston attack involved a Christian attacking Christians. But whether the attacks are racially, ethnically, religiously or nationalistically motivated, attacks on houses of worship are simply unacceptable in a civilized society. And I also include the so-called Price Tag attacks by Israeli Jews against mosques and churches in Israel and the West Bank, the most recent being the torching of a famous Galilee church (the place where the miracle of the loaves and fishes is said to have occurred) just last week. You can see the full list of Price Tag attacks here.
The image of people at prayer or study seeing their sanctuary violated, having the pastoral serenity and love of neighbor represented by the prophet Balaam’s vision of the “goodly tents of Jacob” being rendered instantaneously into a garish nightmare, is one that cuts across cultures.
Here is what my Sikh friend said, recalling Oak Creek, and how for the perpetrator there, “Our turbans and brown skins were foreign and threatening.
”“We forgive you,” were the words that resounded in Oak Creek.
“I forgive you,” said the daughter of one of the nine victims that were killed at the Church in Charleston.
But let us not make the mistake that their forgiveness is forgetting. Rather their forgiveness is freedom from hate.
In both cases, these acts were not random and they were not isolated. However, the way the families of the victims and their communities chose to respond, have raised our consciousness.
In Wisconsin, the community rallied together and preached love over hate, and even forgave the perpetrator of the violence. Similarly, the noble community of Charleston and the Emmanuel AME Church has humbled us with its compassion and its incredible acts of forgiveness.
We marvel at these communities’ generosity and strength because it helps us draw some inspiration from such a tragedy. These communities’ have shown us that: Faith helps endure any hardship, even the most unspeakable suffering. Faith does not mean we forget pain or grief. Faith means that we live free of hate.
These monumental acts of forgiveness compel each and every one of us to work towards ending the racial terror that exists in our country today; to find ways to look beyond the boundaries of race, color, ethnicity and see the Oneness in all.
So forgiving enemies is not about letting them off the hook – it’s about telling them, loud and clear, that they have not succeeded in driving a wedge between groups. They have not succeeded in forcing us to hate.
The best “revenge” against the Charleston perpetrator (aside from not mentioning his name), is that he must be positively bristling to see how his act effectively accomplished what people had been unable to do for 150 years. He singlehandedly took the Confederate flag off the grounds of public buildings and off the shelves of Walmart. Imagine how he must be tortured to know that his act brought people together as never before. Perhaps the lowering of the stars and bars from state capitols, not just South Carolina, but even Alabama, could be a better deterrent for the next hate crime than any form of punishment.
This crazy young man accomplished in one evening what Martin Luther King could not accomplish in a lifetime, at least with regard to the shunning of this symbol.
The removal, with bipartisan acclamation, of a great symbol of hate, and the Supreme Court’s officially ending discrimination against a long-persecuted group. Not a bad week for the survivors and descendants ofSelma, Stonewall, Seneca Falls – and Sinai.
For the first time I understand what it means to forgive one’s enemy – and why forgiveness can be the best revenge of all.