The power of forgiveness
The clothes that the priests wear, according to this week’s commentary by Dr. Gila Vechman, lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, effect atonement for the people of Israel. In Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 10:7, she notes Rabbi Shimon describes how each item of clothing represents an aspect of atonement for the people by the priests, just as the sacrifices do. We learn that one of the central roles of the priest is to provide kaparah – expiation, atonement or forgiveness – for the sins of the people. Is forgiveness something that occurs through ritual or must it be actively pursued?
Much of the book of Leviticus speaks of the sacrifices, mostly of animals, the priests brought to effect atonement for different transgressions of the people. The priests, in elaborate rituals on the holy day of Yom Kippur, makes expiation “for himself and his household and the whole congregation of Israel.” (Leviticus 16:17). While in the Torah it is written, “from all your sins you shall be cleansed before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30), the early sages limited the scope of forgiveness. The sages explained: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person.” (Mishna Yoma 8:9). The elaborate process of teshuva requires an individual to take action to seek forgiveness from the one they have harmed; that process includes recognition of wrongdoing, remorse and restitution.
How surprising then, given Judaism’s requirement of the wrongdoer to take action to seek forgiveness from the one harmed, to have learned on February 1 last week a different approach to forgiveness. Parents Daniel and Leila Abdallah have created i4give Day as a remembrance of their four angels who were tragically lost on the 1st of February 2020. You may recall that on that day, their three children Antony, Angelina and Sienna Abdallah and their niece Veronique Sakr were killed when an out-of-control ute mounted the footpath. The families have taken the extraordinary step of forgiving the man behind the wheel as an important step in their grieving process, and also to also help others who have suffered in a similar way.
Daniel Abdallah said, “We still feel pain and sorrow every day, but forgiveness has helped to get rid of the anger and bitterness. It’s helped us get through each day and make sure we are there for our other children.” His wife Leila said, “Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself and others. The more you practise the better you become at it and it allows you live peacefully and to heal.” I recently hear Danny speak of the horror and pain of that day and his ability to forgive freely. To forgive, he says, is not to forget; to forgive does not impede or undermine the pursuit of justice. Danny teaches that the more you practice forgiveness, the better you become at it and it allows you to live peacefully and to heal.
In the days of Tabernacle and Temple, the rituals of the priests, whose role we first learn in the Torah this week provided atonement and forgiveness for the people. Judaism has developed in such a way to leave that freely given forgiveness in the realm of God, whereas in the human realm forgiveness must be first sought before given. While the Abdallah’s approach to forgiveness is based in their Christian faith, in light of the priestly power to effect atonement, and the admonition given to our people “to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), perhaps we should reflect on the power of forgiveness as the flip side of the pursuit of justice.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins