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Sunday, 4 January, 2015 - 6:49 pm

Late for a seminar and unable to find parking, I pulled into a spot behind a synagogue . It was only after I’d gotten out of the car that I spotted this sign: "No parking. Forgiveness is our business, but don’t make it harder than it already is."

The Rabbi's sermon was Forgive Your Enemies. Toward the end of the service, He asked his congregation, "how many of you have forgiven their enemies"?

About half held up their hands. He then repeated his question. As it was past lunchtime, this time about 80 percent held up their hands. He then repeated his question again. All responded, except one small elderly lady.

"Mrs. Cohen?" inquired the Rabbi, Are you not willing to forgive your enemies?

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

"Mrs. Cohen, That is very unusual. How old are you?" "Ninety-three," she replied.

"Oh Mrs. Cohen , what a blessing and a lesson to us all you are. Would you please come down in front of this congregation and tell us all how a person can live ninety-three years and not have an enemy in the world."

The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said "I outlived all the old troublemakers."

Today, I invite you to take a glance at the first story in this week’s portion, Vayigash.

Joseph was a young boy of only 17 years when his brothers sold him into slavery.  His Egyptian master then plunged him into a dungeon for a crime he had never committed.  In an extraordinary turn of events, he was summoned from prison to interpret a dream of Pharaoh. He was now 30 years of age—most of the years of his youth were spent in an Egyptian cell. The Pharaoh was so enchanted by Joseph that he appointed him Prime Minister of the country. “From prison he went out to become a king.”

This story makes for a modern day drama but what is most astounding about the story is that when Joseph was 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.

Think about it. One would expect that Joseph would have been so angry that he would never forgive his brothers. Think what you would do if your siblings tried to kill you and then sold you into captivity as a pitiful slave, abandoning you for the rest of your life.

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

How can you explain this? How can you internalize this in your life?

And now to the next story.

On the morning of 24 June 1922, Walther Rathenau, the first ever Jewish German foreign minister, set off for work from his villa in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald. 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 down to negotiate a bend just before joining the main road, another car came out of a side street. Two men were sitting in the back. A rapid series of shots rang out. 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 appeared all over the country, and police forces were issued with descriptions of the men. The two assassins were caught. Kern was killed in a shoot-out and Fischer committed suicide; both were in their mid-twenties. The driver, Ernst Techow, was 21. His parents turned him in and he faced trial.

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

“In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand. Say to your son that, in the name and spirit of him he has murdered, I forgive, even as God 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 murdered and came to admire him deeply. He went on to learn Hebrew and become a scholar of Judaism.

After serving his prison sentence, he fought against the Nazis until France capitulated in 1940. When  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.  For individuals who lacked money, he arranged their escapes without payment.  Techow singularly  saved over 700 Jews from Hitler’s death camps.

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

I ask myself the same question: How did his mother find it in herself to pen such a letter to the mother of the driver who participated in her son’s murder?

What spark did these people carry in their hearts allowing them to behave this way? How did Joseph rid himself of resentment and bitterness? Forgiveness is not easy. I cannot judge someone who has been abused and cannot find the space 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.

The freedom to be at peace in our own skins—that’s what forgiveness allows. We relinquish this freedom when we hold onto anger and resentment. Enormous amounts of energy are wasted when we hold back our love, hold onto hate, and harbour acrimonious feelings.

You see, carrying resentment comes from my thoughts about how damaged I am because of someone’s behavior. Forgiveness comes from me recognizing my inner unshakable confidence and strength as G-d’s child. Nobody can destroy that inner “I,” which is a creation of G-d. And that innate “I” is not a victim to anyone’s actions or circumstances, and even has the strength to forgive.

What is more, forgiveness becomes easier when we realize how wounded, desperate, confused, and primitive, the aggressor often is.

This, we know is true, but, still we wonder in our hearts, how can we fully forgive? How can we really let go? How did Joseph forgive? How did Rotenhau forgive? 

Hemingway wrote: “Life breaks all people, but some are stronger in the broken places.” But Hemingway himself committed suicide in the summer of 1961…

I know there is no easy answer to this question.  All I want to do today is marvel on the people who have taught us what humans are capable of.  If Joseph  could send you an email , he would write:  Wherever you are in the world, physically and emotionally, it is G-d who has sent you there. He has sent you because He evaluated you and feels that you can bring light to that situation.

You are a piece of G-d’s light.  Proverbs says “the human soul is a divine light.”  The existence of inner light is very real and is the basis of virtually all human cellular and systemic function. In our essence, we are light. Light can never be vanquished by darkness. Never has it happened that you lit a flame in a dark room and the darkness refused to leave… Never has it happened that you put on a light in a pitch black room and the darkness won over the light.

No darkness—not dark thoughts, not dark experiences—can destroy your inner light. To the contrary, whatever the circumstances, you are empowered to bring your light into that darkness.

With Chanukah only days behind us, it is good to remember that we lit the Chanukah candles only after dark unlike its progenitor, the Temple menorah which was lit at dusk before sunset. Chanukah empowers us to take darkness and use it as the stuff of which we create light. It is what we must know if we wish to set ourselves free.


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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