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CAN YOU FORGIVE AND FORGET?

Friday, 6 January, 2017 - 1:00 pm

Dear Seth,

The topic of the preacher's Sunday sermon was "Forgive Your Enemies." Toward the end of the service, he asked his congregation, "How many of you have forgiven your enemies?"

About half the congregation raised their hands. He repeated his question. As it was past lunchtime, about 80 percent raised their hands. He repeated his question once more. Every person raised a hand, except one small elderly lady.

"Mrs. Jones," inquired the preacher, "Are you not willing to forgive your enemies?

"I don't have any," she replied, smiling sweetly.

"Mrs. Jones, that is very unusual. How old are you?" "93," she replied.

"Mrs. Jones, what a blessing and lesson you are. Please come up front and tell us how a person can live 93 years and not have an enemy in the world."

The little lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said "I outlived the old hags."

In events leading up to this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph was only 17 when his brothers sold him into slavery. His Egyptian master plunged him into a dungeon for a crime he had not committed. When he was 30, in an extraordinary turn of events, he was summoned from prison to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. He so impressed Pharaoh that he was appointed Prime Minister of the land: “From prison he went out to become a king.”

Yet, what is most astounding about the story is that when Joseph reunited with his brothers, he chose to forgive them. As the viceroy of Egypt, with his brothers coming to Egypt to plead for grain during a crushing famine, Joseph could have easily exacted revenge. He chose otherwise.

The Torah relates: “Joseph could not control his emotions… No one else was with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians could hear it. He said, ‘I am Joseph…’ His brothers were so startled, they could not respond. ‘Please come close to me,’ said Joseph to his brothers. When they came closer he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother. You sold me to Egypt. But don’t worry or feel guilty that you sold me, for G-d has sent me ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the area… G-d sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to sustain you through great deliverance. It is not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, master of his entire government and ruler of all Egypt.’ ”

One would expect Joseph to have been so angry that he would never forgive his brothers. If one's siblings tried to kill him and then sold him as a slave, imagine the hours of therapy he would need, and the enormous anger he would harbor the rest of his life.

What did Joseph do? When Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, instead of fury and revenge, he had to calm his mortified brothers: “Do not feel depressed,” he told them, “for it is not you who sent me here, but G-d,” in order to save lives!

“Do not feel depressed?!” Joseph should have been livid, and his brothers should have been soothing him. Instead, it was the opposite! How can we explain this? How can we internalize this?

On June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau, the first-ever Jewish German foreign minister, left his villa in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald to go to work. The weather was fine, so he instructed his chauffeur to use the open-top limousine. The minister sat alone in the back. As the car slowed to negotiate a bend just before joining the main road, another car came out of a side street. Two men were in the back. A rapid series of shots rang out, and there was a loud explosion as one assassin lobbed a hand grenade into the back of the limousine. A passing nurse cradled the dying foreign minister as the chauffeur drove to the nearest police station, but she could do nothing. The 54-year-old beloved and idealistic German foreign minister was dead in the hands of a group of right extremists and bitter anti-Semites.

The assassins, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, escaped. The police mounted the largest manhunt Germany had ever seen: "Wanted" posters all over the country, police forces issuing descriptions of the men. The assassins were caught. Kern was killed in a shoot-out and Fischer committed suicide; both were in their mid-20's. The driver, Ernst Techow, was 21. His parents turned him in and he faced trial.

Then something extraordinary occurred. Rathenau’s mother wrote Techow’s mother the following letter.

“In unspeakable grief, I give you my hand. Say to your son that, in the name and spirit of who he murdered, I forgive, even as G-d may forgive, if before an earthly judge your son makes a full and frank confession of his guilt… and before a heavenly judge repents. Had he known my son, the noblest man earth bore, he would have rather turned the weapon on himself. May these words give peace to your soul.” – Mathilde Rathenau

These amazing words, combined with Techow’s testimony that he had wanted to back out of the incident before being threatened himself, led the court to convict him for 14 years. He ultimately served five. While in prison, he studied the writings of the man he had murdered and came to admire him deeply. He went on to learn Hebrew and become a scholar of Judaism.

After serving his sentence, Techow joined the Foreign Legion and was decorated for his military exploits fighting Nazis, including the capture of 24 Nazis. While serving, he met a nephew of Rathenau and told him that the letter from Rathenau’s mother was his most valued possession. He said he hoped he could make up in some way for his past behavior.

He fought against the Nazis until France capitulated in 1940. As occupied France began to participate in the slaughter of Jews, Techow smuggled himself into Marseilles. Once in Marseilles, he risked capture and torture by the Nazis, daily, to help Jews escape to Spain with Moroccan passports.  He arranged escapes of individuals who lacked money without payment. Techow saved over 700 Jews from Hitler.

Rathenau’s mother was able, in incredible pain, to offer words of forgiveness. Those words ultimately saved 700 lives and transformed Techow.

How did his mother find it in herself to pen this letter to the mother of a participant in her son’s murder?

How did Joseph rid himself of resentment and bitterness? How did Madam Rathenau find the ability to extend her hand in forgiveness?

Forgiveness is not easy. I cannot judge someone who has been abused and is unable to forgive. Who can tell a mother whose child was taken from her to forgive? In fact, sometimes, forgiveness is wrong: If the criminal continues to hurt people and is unrepentant, forgiving him might turn me into an accomplice to his immoral actions. Nor can I forgive someone for the pain they caused to someone else.

There is a humorous Zen story: In the hills of Quong Zu province, there lived a revered old monk who was a master of Zen Buddhism.

He decided to make a pilgrimage to a neighboring monastery, but not wishing to journey alone, he asked one of his young disciples to accompany him.

They started their journey early, and in the true spirit of Zen each walked engrossed in his own thoughts. They journeyed thus many hours without speaking. At mid-day they arrived at a small stream where they noticed a young girl dressed in fine silk, obviously contemplating how best to cross the stream without getting her precious clothes wet.

Immediately, the old monk walked over to the young girl, and in one smooth motion, he picked her up and carried her across the stream. He gently set her down on the other side, and walked on without having said a single word.

His disciple, having watched the whole incident, was in complete shock, for it was strictly forbidden for a monk to come into physical contact with another person. Quickly, he, too, crossed the stream, and then ran to catch up with his master, and together they continued walking in silence. At sunset, they made a camp and settled down for the night.

The next morning after prayers and meditation, the two once again continued their journey in silence.

After many miles, unable to contain his curiosity, the disciple said, "Master may I ask you a question"?

"Of course you may," his master replied. "Knowledge comes to those who seek it".

Respectfully, his disciple said, "Yesterday I saw you break one of our most sacred vows by carrying that girl across the stream. How could you do such that?"

His master replied, "You are right, it is something I should not have done, but you are as guilty as I."

"How so?" asked his disciple. "It was you who carried her across the stream, not I."

"I know," replied his master, "but at least on the other side I put her down. You, however, are obviously still carrying her".

We all carry burdens of bitter memories and resentments that only weigh us down and create barriers between us and others. We can't imagine the freedom, the sense of relief we can find when we finally put those burdens down.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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