Forgiveness Between People: Stories from the Common Era

Chapter 2

Forgiveness Between People:  Stories from the Common Era

So forgiveness is a priceless ingredient in human life.  It stands against the two extremes of “anything goes” and “only perfection counts,” and opens the door to a whole new approach to human affairs.  –Lyman T. Lundeen (1)


Preliminary History

The word “forgive” is of Old English origin and dates in the literary record back to a 10th century translation of Bede’s Latin.  It means to “give completely” and therefore has association with the tradition of gift-giving in pre-market economies (2).  In fact, since a gift is given with no exchange specified or necessarily expected, forgiveness has a strong association with gift-giving.  But even though the acts of forgiving and gift-giving expect no exchange in return, this does not mean that the gift-giver does not notice the response of the receiver to the gift, since this response eventually comes to symbolize the relationship the receiver decides to have with the giver (depending on whether the gift is rejected, casually accepted, or accepted with gratitude).  As it is so eloquently stated in the Didache (generally considered the earliest church document after the New Testament):  “Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give, for you shall know who is the good reciprocator of the reward.”  (Didache 4:7)  In other words, be generous, and you will provide others with an opportunity to be generous in return.

To trace the concept of forgiveness further back into Christian and Jewish history requires a different vocabulary, for there is no direct word in Hebrew or Greek for “forgive.”  Instead, we must look to words like “mercy, love, compassion, blessing, charity, pardon, remittance” and related concepts like “confession, repentance, expiation, atonement.”  Many words in Hebrew are translated as “forgive” — perhaps the most common is “salah” (calach), which is also rendered as “to pardon” or “to spare.”  Linguistic studies of Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews in the time of Jesus, suggest that forgiveness was spoken of in terms of remission from debt (many of Jesus’ parables, such as the Prodigal Son, are couched in these terms) or, more generally, release from bondage (which is what unpaid debt often led to).  Different from the secular mentality, the religious mentality considers humanity, created by God, to be indebted to God for the gift of life.  Since humanity owes all to God, any mercy God shows to us in life is a pardon for this debt and calls upon us to show mercy to each other.

Beyond the etymological root of the word forgive, let us consider the recorded origin of the idea of forgiveness.  This origin is the figure of Abraham, the founder of the three main western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It was Abraham’s departure from Mesopotamia, both literally and figuratively, that provided the main theme common to these three religions.  This common theme is that we are all inheritors of the promise revealed to Abraham, the promise which provides a purpose and meaning to time and history.   There are three main aspects to this theme:  1) Creation is good; 2) God is merciful; 3) created in God’s likeness, we have a duty to imitate God and be merciful towards each other.

The first aspect is the repeated refrain in the beginning of Genesis:  “…and God saw that it was good.”  Creation, despite its imperfections, is considered to be fundamentally good — it is better to exist than to not exist.  This faith establishes a whole conception of time that is different from the conception that existed in the civilization of Mesopotamia at the time when Abraham departed. Abraham’s departure was due to the promise made to him that his seed would bear much fruit, and this is why Jews, Christians and Muslims are all meant to consider themselves the seed of Abraham.  The Mesopotamian conception was that good and evil were equal forces constantly striving against each other for dominance.  Good and evil would defeat each other in cycles and these cycles constituted the nature of time.  But with the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 22:15-18) we enter into a covenant that establishes a purpose to time:  creation exists for the purpose of bringing good to fruition, and that in the end, good will prevail.

If creation is good, the corollary is that God is merciful.  In the ancient world-view, we cannot understand the mercy of God without relation to sacrifice.  In ancient society, sacrifice was the core practice for alleviating divine anger and obtaining divine pardon. The sacrifice, whatever it was, was considered a precious gift offered to a divine entity to gain favor.  Kings had the power to pardon because of their semi-divine status.

And if God is merciful and creation is good, then we as creations of God are meant to imitate God and be merciful towards each other.  This is the third main aspect of Abrahamic religions that we are engaged in working out through our common history: people are made in God’s likeness and therefore have a duty to be forgiving.  The issue of how to live up to this duty is the struggle that troubles us so much throughout history.

The basic message of pre-rabbinic Jewish moral teaching was that control of self is more important than control of others.  From this we learn what forgiveness is not:  it is not vengeance.  “Vengeance is mine” saith the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35), and we are not to lay claim to God’s powers.  This negative definition of forgiveness is what we often mean by “Have mercy!”, meaning no more than “Don’t hit me!”  In the Hebrew Bible (Torah), justice meant “the sword,” punishment for wrongdoing, and mercy meant the release from punishment.  A good example of these principles can be found in Abraham’s plea for God to have mercy for the righteous in the corrupt city of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-32).  Sodom is still destroyed, but the righteous are allowed to escape.

A pivotal story for establishing the theme of self-restraint in the Torah is the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  Abraham’s restraint, heeding the merciful voice of God to spare Isaac, becomes a paradigm for religious practice under the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the patriarchs).  Abraham’s restraint becomes generalized and codified in the ten commandments of Moses.  Although stories in the Torah such as Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50) demonstrate more than just a negative definition of forgiveness, the philosophy of a positive definition only develops in the Rabbinic  commentaries of the Talmud.  The shift within Judaism from the Temple to the Synagogue is important to understand this development, for the Temple had become the center of the system of animal sacrifice first established by Abraham.

We cannot understand the demise of the Temple system without understanding the friendship between the two Jewish prophets John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.   Both of these men departed from the tradition of animal sacrifice practiced in the Temple and established a tradition of self-sacrifice.  While doing this John the Baptist and Jesus were building on the prophetic tradition that called for the revival of religious values against the abuses of power associated with the Temple system (see Mark 11:15-19 for Jesus’ expulsion of the dealers from the Temple in Jerusalem).   It was in the aftermath of these radical criticisms that the Temple fell, and animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism since. [This criticism does not reject the value of sacrifice and ritual purity, but values them as means of worship while refusing to allow them to be treated as objects of worship.]  This establishment of self-sacrifice in place of animal sacrifice is as  fundamental of a shift as that of  Abraham’s establishment of animal sacrifice in place of human sacrifice that we find in the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (Abraham substituted a ram as a sacrifice in place of his son).  This transformation of the sacrificial system signals a development in the understanding of forgiveness.

What John the Baptist accomplished was to hone the Jewish message down to a single imperative:  “Repent!”  This message of self-criticism went to his very core:  “Someone more powerful than I (is coming), and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” (Luke 3:16)  What Jesus added to this was the consummate act of repentance in the act of self-sacrifice:  “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)  It is within the context of giving oneself over to others that the practical concept of “love of enemies” starts to make sense.

Before exploring the positive philosophy of forgiveness and repentance developed in the Talmud and the Gospel, let us consider a story of forgiveness as a basis for analysis.

An Example and an Analysis

The following story comes from the sayings of the desert fathers of the 4th century as translated by Thomas Merton.

Abbot Anastasius had a book written on very fine parchment which was worth eighteen pence, and had in it both the Old and New Testaments in full.  Once a certain brother came to visit him, and seeing the book made off with it.  So that day when Abbot Anastasius went to read his book, and found that it was gone, he realized that the brother had taken it.  But he did not send after him to inquire about it for fear that the brother might add perjury to theft.  Well, the brother went down into the nearby city in order to sell the book.  And the price he asked was sixteen pence.  The buyer said:  Give me the book that I may find out whether it is worth that much.  With that, the buyer took the book to the holy Anastasius and said:  Father, take a look at this book, please, and tell me whether you think I ought to buy it for sixteen pence.  Is it worth that much?  Abbot Anastasius said:  Yes, it is a fine book, it is worth that much.  So the buyer went back to the brother and said:  Here is your money.  I showed the book to Abbot Anastasius and he said it is a fine book and is worth at least sixteen pence.  But the brother asked:  Was that all he said?  Did he make any other remarks?  No, said the buyer, he did not say another word.  Well, said the brother, I have changed my mind and I don’t want to sell this book after all.  Then he hastened to Abbot Anastasius and begged him with tears to take back his book, but the Abbot would not accept it, saying:  Go in peace, brother, I make you a present of it.  But the brother said:  If you do not take it back I shall never have any peace. After that the brother dwelt with Abbot Anastasius for the rest of his life. (3)

To fully appreciate this story it helps to understand the historical context.  The Abbot’s Bible was not just a book, but was probably the only book he had or that existed within the desert community of which he was the leader.  The daily structure of the whole desert community depended on readings from the community Bible.  It is difficult for us to appreciate the significance of this loss to the Abbot and his community.

Even though we have no doubt that this story is all about forgiveness, notice that the word “forgive” never appears, nor do we ever hear an “exact” apology, such as saying “sorry.”  In fact, the story hinges on what is not said, what is unspoken but understood as that around which all the dialogue revolves.  The Abbot never says “you took my book,” the brother never says “I’m sorry for taking your book,” and the Abbot never says “I forgive you for taking my book.”  This formulaic dialogue (accusation, admission, pardon) is more like what might ideally happen in a court.  But the story is more personal and more revealing.

The reason that so much is left unsaid by the actors in the story is that the Abbot is actively avoiding letting lies take over in the situation.  Lies are what we are more likely to find in court where often the problem is that too much is said.  Yet the words in this story are very important indeed, for the words not only state the facts (and confirm or deny other statements):  they change the facts.  Every word spoken in this story changes the situation rather than just describing it.  Therefore to be skillful in the conduct of forgiveness one must be skillful in the methods of avoiding lies (not just the methods of arguing the evidence).

Another aspect of this story that stands out is the spirit of prayer and the readiness to sacrifice involved in the Abbot’s approach to the situation.  If he was not ready to give away the book he would have been more inclined to confront the thief, and if he had not reflected on the likelihood of denial with confrontation he would have been less ready to let the thief go.  Humility and realism, discipline and charity all play essential roles in shaping the Abbot’s responses.

In the final analysis, though, no matter how forgiving the Abbot was, forgiveness is only accomplished when the Abbot’s offer of forgiveness was accepted by the brother.  It is the brother’s repentance that completes the act of forgiveness.  Without it, the act remains incomplete.  To be properly humble and realistic, the forgiver must understand this dependence on the response of the forgiven.  As the act of forgiveness is what consummates our efforts to repent, so the act of repentance consecrates our efforts to forgive.   Forgiveness and repentance are mutually inclusive:  what can be forgiven can be repented and vice-versa.

Let us now look into these aspects of forgiveness in terms of the traditions that are their source.  I will address the issues of repentance with the Talmud and the issues of forgiveness with the Gospel.

The Talmud and Repentance

What can be repented can be forgiven.  What has the Talmud to say about repentance?  Consider the traditional role of the Day of Atonement in repentance and pardon for sin:

The Day of Atonement brings pardon for sin if there is repentance (Yoma 8:8), but Judah ha-Nasi holds that the Day of Atonement brings pardon even without repentance except in cases of very serious sin (Yoma 85b).  The Day of Atonement is ineffective if a man says:  “I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement.”  If a man says:  “I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent” he will be given no chance to repent (Yoma 8:9).  The second century teacher R. Ishmael is reported as saying (Yoma 86a):  “If a man transgressed a positive precept, and repented, he is forgiven right away.  If he has transgressed a negative commandment and repented, then repentance suspends punishment and the Day of Atonement procures atonement.  If he has committed a sin to be punished with extirpation (karet), or death at the hands of the court, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment, and suffering cleanses him from the sin.  But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it.”  This scheme contains all the tensions resulting from the different aspects of atonement mentioned in the Bible. (4)

Although some sins may be pardonable only at the end of the life of the penitent, this points out the difficulty of repentance for serious sin, not the impossibility.  This is exactly the manner in which such issues are addressed in the classical commentary on ethics by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart, where he stresses the degree of difficulty in repenting as dependent on the seriousness of the offense.  In fact, the Rabbi finds only one limit on the scope of repentance:  “Repentance is only withheld from the sinner by his own evil mind and deceitful heart.” (5)

This reciprocity between pardon and repentance is common in the traditions of both synagogue and church.  Consider the similarity between the quote above with the following discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son where repentance is spoken of in terms of the return of the son to the father: “Few passages in the New Testament are better than this parable for teaching how sin is an offense against God and how absurd it would be to conceive of a pardon that would not also include the return of the sinner…Without such a return, there would be no pardon conceivable. More precisely, the father had always forgiven him, but the pardon only efficaciously reaches the son’s sin in and through the latter’s return.” (6)

In broader terms we can relate this reciprocity to the balance between mercy and justice as attributes of God.  The following passage from Jewish tradition gives a good sense of the inter-dependence of mercy and justice, that mercy without justice is merciless and justice without mercy is unjust: “The divine justice is inevitably linked with the divine mercy. According to the Midrash, God said:  ‘Sin will abound if I create the world by mercy alone; but how can the world endure, if I create it by justice alone?  I will therefore create it by both.'” (7)

Now let us consider more specifically the forms of repentance because if we cannot identify these we may miss opportunities to forgive.  The general forms to be found in the literature can be identified as 1) admission, 2) restitution and 3) discipline.


Confession is a strong tradition in both Judaism and Christianity.  A serious reading of the New Testament leads to the following conclusion: “When Jesus forgives sin, admission of sin is a condition for pardon.” (8) Exactly what constitutes admission is a different question.  For instance, the brother never needed to confess to the Abbot that he stole his book — the fact was understood rather than stated.  Rather there is simply no denial of the fact, and the admission occurs with the return of the book (that is, in the form of restitution).  Just what counts for admission is a question of legitimate debate, as we find in the Talmud.  For instance, consider the following discussion: “The penitent sinner must confess his sins.  According to Rabbi Judah ben Bava a general confession is insufficient; the details of each sin must be stated explicitly.  But Rabbi Akiva holds that a general confession is enough (Yoma 86b).” (9)

That there is room for a range of confession, from explicit to indirect, can be found in various discussions.  For instance we can look at the settings in which confessions occur in Judaism:  “These confessions occur in many contexts:  prayer, praise, interrogation, etc.; the confession of sins is thus often indirect.” (10)  As we may guess from the previous passage on the Day of Atonement, the proper form of confession depends on the nature of the wrong committed.  It is important to consider whether a confession is best kept general or made specific, whether it is done publicly or privately.  We can find some sensitivity to these considerations in the following passages: “Public confession of sin was frowned upon as displaying a lack of shame except when the transgressions were committed publicly, or, according to others, in the case of offenses against other human beings (Yoma 86b).” (11)

The Day of Atonement, with its general confession, is meant to increase people’s awareness that all have wronged and the importance of dealing with these matters with a humble attitude: “The confessions are phrased in the plural because the entire community regards itself responsible for many offenses that could have been prevented.  On the Day of Atonement, they are recited repeatedly to make the people intensely aware of the need of a fuller mastery over the impulses.” (12)

What these considerations emphasize is the spirit of humbleness, rather than arrogance, that repentance and forgiveness require.  Without further specifying guidelines for confession, one thing that shows up clearly from these considerations is that the denial of wrong-doing effectively blocks forgiveness.  As Fulton J. Sheen writes:  “The really unforgivable sin is the denial of sin, because, by its nature, there is now nothing to be forgiven.”

Similarly, “confessions” that are arrogant or flippant do not help.  A third party mediator should act to prevent these problems of admission from setting the tone of mediation.  As it says in the Talmud, we should not be an occasion for sin (for example, allowing for lies) or be a provocation for scandal (for instance, encourage confessions that are false in spirit). (13)

These issues of confession can be seen vividly at play in the following story from Hasidism, an eighteenth-century Eastern European Jewish renewal movement.  This version is related by Elie Wiesel:

Another story [from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt]:  perhaps the most important one of his rabbinical career and one he himself corroborated.  One day he received the visit of a woman known – too well, perhaps – for her conduct.  Whatever malicious tongues like to tell about a beautiful and rich and intelligent woman, they said about her.  “Rabbi,” she said, “I need your help, your intervention for me in heaven:  I want to repent, I want to change my ways – help me.”  They were not alone in the rabbi’s office; there were the secretary and the servant and also a Hasid or two, no doubt.  They all listened as the Master said angrily, “You dare come to me?  Shameless woman, you have the temerity to appear before me?  Don’t you know that I have eyes to see and that my eyes see into your innermost soul?”  And to prove it to her, he proceeded to reveal certain things she had done.  The woman paled and then answered gently and sadly:  “I don’t understand you, Master.  Why must you reveal in public what God Himself prefers to keep secret?”  And she went away.  One version says she was thrown out.  And she said, “God is kinder; He allows me to stay in His house.”  Later, the rabbi felt deeply troubled and stirred in his very soul.  “This is the only person who has gotten the better of me,” he later said to his disciples.  “This encounter has humbled me; it will remain a turning point in my life.  It made me see suddenly that I was on the wrong path, for I chose judgment over compassion.” (14)

In this example, the Rabbi unnecessarily pushes for a detailed confession in public.  This does not serve repentance – it only humiliates the woman as he rubs salt in her wound.  For this wrong, the Rabbi himself must make an explicit, detailed and public confession in order to repent, and the story itself is the evidence of how he did this.

When admission fails because the offender denies the wrong, the desert father Abba Poemen advises us not to despair:

Abba Poemen said, ‘If a man has sinned and denies it, saying:  “I have not sinned,” do not reprimand him; for that will discourage him.  But say to him, “Do not lose heart, brother, but be on guard in the future,” and you will stir his soul to repentance.’ (15)

This advice keeps us focused on the future and hope.  But if the wrong is grievous or compulsive, this advice might not be suitable, for then it could serve to let the wrong-doer off scot-free.


The second form of repentance, often following shortly after the first, is restitution.  Sometimes this form is addressed by the requirement of the wrong-doer to come to terms with the person wronged.  We find this both in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:23f) and in the Talmud concerning the Day of Atonement:  “We are repeatedly reminded that Yom Kippur brings pardon for sins between man and God, and it cannot bring forgiveness as long as no attempt has been made to repair the injury inflicted upon one’s fellow man.  God does not clear the guilty in matters touching human beings unless reparation precedes all else (Yoma 8:8).  The wrong-doer must first win pardon from the person wronged.” (16)

Sometimes restitution is physical (such as returning the stolen book) and sometimes it is symbolic (when physical restitution is impossible). After World War II some Jews concluded that there could be no forgiveness for the Nazi executioners because there was no way they could repent to those they wronged because those wronged were dead. The literature on these matters is reluctant to let those involved off the hook so easily, though, as we can see in this passage from Duties of the Heart:   “If the wronged man had died, the penitent should return to the heirs the money he had wrongfully taken from the deceased.  If he had physically hurt a person now deceased, or spoken evilly about him, the penitent should make confession at the grave of the departed in the presence of ten men, and his sin will be atoned.” (17)

Restitution is the main focus of the movement to institutionalize a system of “restorative justice” in which the perpetrator of an offense is held responsible for making amends to the victim.  Criticisms of these efforts say that too much focus can center on the victim or the perpetrator, and that diminishing the power of experts in the process can lead to a vigilante tone. (18)   Certainly experts should help facilitate a civil process, but the issues raised by critics can certainly be addressed, and the focus of bettering the future with “restorative justice” is an important corrective to our system of “retributive justice” which does no more than punish for what was done in the past.


The third form of repentance is best characterized by the word “discipline.”  This is carried out in the spirit of what Jesus said to the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn thee:  go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)  In terms of repentance, this is the equivalent of saying that “sorry is as sorry does” — meaning that it is no good saying sorry if one is going to commit the wrong again.  In the Jewish tradition, the medieval philosopher Maimonides is most often quoted in this regard:  “Defined by Maimonides, repentance means that the sinner casts his sins out of his mind and resolves in his heart to sin no more.” (19) More specifically: “Defining perfect repentance, [Maimonides] offers this  illustration:  ‘When an opportunity presents itself for repeating an  offense once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the  offense, nevertheless refrains from doing so because he is penitent, and not out of fear or failure of vigor.'” (20)

What Maimonides is referring to here is well reflected in the story where the brother who stole the book devotes his life to the Abbot, not out of guilt for having stolen the book, but out of love for the Abbot’s forgiving spirit.  This third form of repentance is the most long-term and important indicator for the effect of forgiveness in any particular instance.  Regardless of the confession or restitution of the wrong-doer, it is the discipline that he adopts to address the weakness in his life that is most important in the penitent response.  A fully repentant wrong-doer comes to recognize forgiveness in daily life and becomes a forgiving person himself.  It is this long-term view that forgiveness should serve most.  Confession and restitution can effect a conciliation, but it is only with the longer-term view that a reconciliation is achieved.

The following story from the desert father Abba Poemen reflects this point of the ultimate importance of discipline:

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, “I have committed a great sin and I want to do penance for three years.”  The old man said to him, “That is a lot.”  The brother said, “For one year?”  The old man said again, “That is a lot.”  Those who were present said, “For forty days?” He again said, “That is a lot.”  He added, “I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.” (21)

Finally, in response to the repentance of the wrong-doer, there is the duty of the person wronged to forgive:  “If the injured party refuses to forgive after the third request, he is described as cruel.” (22) This duty is based on the principle of our dependence on and imitation of God:  “Since man depends on the mercy of God, he is expected to extend mercy to his fellow men.” (23)  Christian writer George MacDonald goes so far as to call the refusal to forgive “spiritual murder”:

It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him.  The former may be the act of a moment of passion:  the latter is the heart’s choice.  It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that, in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated.

But in this regard we come across a curiosity in the Jewish tradition that should be taken as a warning:  “In the case of slander one is not duty-bound to forgive.” (24)  In the general confession (Al Het) on the Day of Atonement “a considerable number of sins mentioned…refer to offenses committed with our tongue, such as idle talk, slander and talebearing.” (25)  Slander is even considered murder on the name of the wronged.  But then why is it on the list of the general confession on the Day of Atonement if it is unforgivable?  Because the precept that one is not duty-bound to forgive slander is a warning against committing the offense rather than a proclamation that the offense cannot be forgiven.  Since slander is a lie and lying kills forgiveness, the precept warns both the offender and the offended not to expect too much from forgiveness alone.  Indeed, the warnings against offenses of speech should catch the ear of professional mediators, since the profession involves so much talking and so much listening to talk.  Gestures and deeds can mean more than words alone, and sometimes the fewer words the better.  For example, in child custody disputes, parents often engage in mutual character assassination that has devastating consequences for children’s sense of security and development of personal identity.

The Gospel and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is central to the message of Jesus and Christianity.  For instance, in the letters of the apostles, forgiveness is related to the commandments of Jesus to love God and neighbor and to follow his example.  Let us explore these three commandments by way of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John.

Love of God

II Peter 3:8-9:  Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:  not rendering evil for evil:  but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.

In this passage St. Peter presents the reason to forgive (“bless”) as the love of God and the desire to gain God’s favor (“inherit a blessing”). It is related to the “forgive us as we forgive others” sermon in the “our father” prayer.  There are two ways to understand this.  One is that we get back in the after-life what we dish out in this life.  The other is that while forgiving, we enact God’s forgiveness “on earth as it is in heaven.”  These considerations show how directly we move from love of God to love of neighbor and divine example.

A Jewish Hasidic story that demonstrates St. Peter’s sense of compassion comes from Martin Buber’s collection. This is the first of two “laughter” stories that are good illustrations of some of the issues before us.  It comes from the school of the Maggid of Mezritch, the great teacher associated with the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism in Eastern Europe during the 18th century.  It is entitled “The List of Sins”:

During his stay in Mezritch, the rav of Kolbishov saw an old man come to the Great Maggid and ask him to impose penance on him for his sins. “Go home,” said the maggid.  “Write all your sins down on a slip of paper and bring it to me.”  When the man brought him the list, he merely glanced at it.  Then he said, “Go home.  All is well.”  But later the rav observed that the maggid read the list and laughed at every line.  This annoyed him.  How could anyone laugh at sins!

For years he could not forget the incident, until once he heard someone quote a saying of the Baal Shem:  “It is well-known that no one commits a sin unless the spirit of folly possesses him.  But what does the sage do if a fool comes to him?  He laughs at his folly, and while he laughs, a breath of gentleness is wafted through the world.  What was rigid, thaws, and what was a burden becomes light.”  The rav reflected.  In his soul he said:  “Now I understand the laughter of the holy maggid.” (26)

Notice in this story how the rabbi laughs not in the presence of the penitent, but in the presence of God.  And it is not the penitent the rabbi laughs at, but the list of sins.  In this case it is hard to imagine that the list includes serious sins.  This is a compassionate response.

Love of Neighbor

Romans 12:19-21:  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath:  for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.  Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:  for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

This passage by St. Paul is a controversial and challenging one.  The controversial part is the reference to “coals of fire,” variously interpreted as referring to the conscience of the receiver of charity, or to an ancient atonement ritual of carrying coals in a dish on one’s head, or simply to St. Paul’s sadism and guilt-mongering.

But aside from the issue of St. Paul’s harsh temperament, the challenge of this passage relates the duty to forgive with the duty of fraternal correction.  “Love the sinner, correct the sin” is the traditional formula.  Psychotherapy has inherited this distinction with the idea of constructive criticism:  criticize the behavior, not the person.  What St. Paul adds to this is the perception that being generous to one who has wronged you serves to indirectly heighten the criticism.

A story that demonstrates St. Paul’s sense of challenge is this second Hasidic “laughter” story entitled “Tears and Laughter”:

A man once confessed a sin to the rabbi of Apt and told him with tears how he had atoned for it.  The zaddik laughed.  The man went on to tell what more he intended doing to atone for his sin; the rabbi went on laughing.  The man wanted to speak on, but the laughter robbed him of his speech.  He stared at the zaddik in horror.  And then his very soul held its breath and he heard that which is spoken deep within.  He realized how trivial all his fuss about atoning had been and turned to God.

Later the rabbi of Apt told his hasidim:  “Two thousand years ago, before I became high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem, I had to learn the service step by step.  First I was accepted into the company of young priests.  At that time this man who has just gone was one of those who lived remote from the rest.  He was stern with himself, pure and proven in the practice of all the virtues.  But unexpectedly he was snared in a serious sin.  In accordance with the law he prepared to bring a sin-offering.

“This was the custom in those days:  When a man came to the keeper in charge to choose an animal for the sacrifice, the official asked him what sin he was about to atone for.  When the man would begin to speak, the sorrow of his secret would spill over, and he would pour his heart out like water.  Then he would take the animal and walk through the streets of Jerusalem to the hall of the Temple where the animal was to be slaughtered.  There the young priests would come to meet him and they too would inquire what his sin had been, and again his heart would melt like wax in fire.  By the time such a man would reach the high priest and confess his innermost secret, he would be wholly transformed.

“Now when this man entered the Temple hall with his sacrificial animal, I took pity on his ravaged and tear-stained face.  I comforted him, wept with him, and eased his heart, until he began to regain his composure and his sin weighed on him less and less.  When he came to the high priest he did not experience the turning to God, and his offering was not graciously accepted.  So, in the course of time, he had to come down to earth once more and appear before me again.  But this time I loved him more.” (27)

This story is unique in Buber’s extensive literature on Hasidism in that Buber typically presents a more restrained picture of Hasidic culture.   Whatever one makes of the reincarnation aspect of this story, there is something authentic about the rabbi’s perception of the attempts at confession and restitution that are brought before him.  In a way these attempts were blocking the penitent from a true change of heart which is only achieved with the rejection of these false attempts.  Although the rabbi in this story laughs in the presence of the penitent, it is not the penitent the rabbi is laughing at, but his attempts at confession and restitution.  This story involves more serious sin than was the case in “The List of Sins,” calling for a more challenging response.

The elongated distortion of time in this story illustrates that repentance and forgiveness may have many false starts before they take effect in unexpected ways.  There is a pace to forgiveness that requires a patient, long-term commitment.  If we under-estimate the task, we will act hastily and lose heart at the failure:  too much too soon, too little too late.  But if we miss too many opportunities out of timidity masking as patience, it will be too little forever.  As the rabbi says of his courage at the end of the story:  “This time I loved him more.”

Divine Example

In the Gospel of John we find the strongest statement of this commandment:  “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”  In this formulation, the idea of following God’s ways is made specific to following the example of Jesus’ conduct.  It is because of the importance of finding examples for guidance that this book focuses on probing the examples of some good stories.

Reconciliation and Communion

On the day before Yom Kippur the people are prescribed to settle their outstanding differences from the year so that they won’t have blocks to atonement.  In the same vein St. Matthew tells us to settle our differences before taking communion:

Matthew 5:23-24:  So then, if you are bringing your offering (gift) to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.

Think of what a powerful message it would be for people to deny themselves communion before repenting and forgiving.  As Donald Nicholl argued (28), such practices helped bring peace to places with conflicts like Northern Ireland.

Later in his Gospel St. Matthew articulates guidelines for how to go about settling differences:

Matthew 18:15-17:  Moreover If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone:  if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church:  but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen and a publican.

In this format, there is initially a personal approach which, if it fails, is supplemented by the introduction of a mediating third-party.  It is only if the second option is exhausted without benefit that the community institution is brought in.  In this way there is a method to avoid publicizing the conflict with ill-considered speech, publicity which often results in mutual scandal-mongering, humiliation and retaliation.  St. Matthew’s guidelines are designed to bring dignity to the conduct of settling differences.  The way Abbot Anastasius avoided publicizing the theft is a good example of this.

It is amazing how familiar these guidelines seem to those of us who help mediate conflicts, yet how little do we consider the tradition from which these practices come.  And how little do we find people following these guidelines in society at large, as conflicts fester and escalate?  This is especially the case in a society which has largely abandoned the value of the common good, in pursuit of instant gratification.  One of the results is that truth and diplomacy become divorced, where truth is reduced to the expression of personal desires and diplomacy is reduced to the expediency of avoiding unpleasant truths (29). Forgiveness reconciles truth and diplomacy with the common good.  The patience of forgiveness is the cure for the ravages of instant gratification.


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