On forgiveness

Ira Lacher reflects on a major theme of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which begins at sunset on September 27. -promoted by Laura Belin

This is the season when Jews all over the world are bound to examine themselves and their actions, even their thoughts, emotions and feelings. During this time, culminating on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told that "for the sins of man against God, the Day of Atonement forgives. But for the sins of man against another man, the Day of Atonement does not forgive, until they have made peace with one another."

I'll be honest: This is the hardest year of my life to forgive.

How do I forgive Donald J. Trump, who has taken the ideals of the nation millions of us were brought up to believe in, fight for and even die for, and crumpled them up like an empty beer can? His latest: He won't agree to leave office if he loses the November election.

How do I forgive someone who, almost singlehandedly, has incited suspicion, hostility, enmity, and outright hate against those who look, speak, worship and love differently?

How do I forgive a man who almost single-handedly, has decimated the reputation, respect and trust of the country millions of us and our ancestors were brought up to love?

How do you forgive the man who, almost singlehandedly, has upended your life, and the lives of hundreds of millions of others, and been responsible for ending the lives of tens of thousands of others?

And how do you forgive the millions of people who blindly follow this man's every pronouncement and action, and disregard what's as plain as the noses on their maskless faces?

The prophet Micah posited that forgiveness comes only from the victim, and that acknowledgment of wrong must be made: Who is a God like You, who forgives iniquity and passes over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not maintain His anger forever, for He desires loving-kindness. -- Micha 7:18. But by his own admission, Donald J. Trump has never asked God for forgiveness.

Our rabbis are unclear on this matter, and there is no consensus. "Even a belief that the world requires reconciliation cannot impose a duty to forgive," writes Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan. "Ultimately, the decision must be left to individuals as we balance costs and benefits to ourselves and others."

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, acknowledges that some sins can't be forgiven. "Some damage done is permanent," he writes.

The most compelling argument I've seen on whether to forgive comes from Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer in Fresno, California. She posits a three-legged stool of justifiable forgiveness: First, "No matter how egregious the wrong, are we ready to see the wrongdoer’s humanity?" Second, "We should not be cruel by withholding forgiveness from those who have made amends." And third, "If we find ourselves wrapped in clouds of stress, resentment, anger or intolerance, then finding a way to move toward forgiveness would be to our benefit."

So, let me address the first two legs as they relate to Donald J. Trump.

Has he exhibited humanity? For example, has he atoned for lying to the American people about the severity of the virus and his role in downplaying it, as he confessed on tape to Bob Woodward? Has he apologized? Maybe by saying something like this?

Has he made amends for the virus-inflicted horrific economic pain, including massive job losses and evictions, by using his power over his congressional minions to move on relief for the millions so affected? Has he vowed in his re-election campaign to turn it all around, to embark on a mission of healing and rejuvenation for America?

By any objective analysis, the answer to both is "no." Donald J. Trump does not answer two out of three questions correctly and thus does not win Karl Kassel's voice on his answering machine.

Where does that put me on the third?

Yes, I continue to be wrapped in clouds of stress, resentment, anger or intolerance as this virus threatens to bring uncounted continuous months of isolation, uncertainty, deprivation, and emotional and economic pain.

Yes, I continue to be wrapped in clouds of stress, resentment, anger or intolerance at the millions who follow Trump blindly, harden their disbelief of facts, seethe in their racism and widen the gulf between Americans.

Yes, I continue to be wrapped in clouds of stress, resentment, anger or intolerance at those who refuse to put aside their petty objections to Donald J. Trump's opponent and withhold their votes for him or waste them on Kanye West or someone else.

"For the sins of man against God, the Day of Atonement forgives. But for the sins of man against another man, the Day of Atonement does not forgive, until they have made peace with one another."

I'm not proud of my feelings. But I am honest about them.


  • Trump's forgiveness is in his own hands.

    Before we begin Yom Kippur, we chant the Kol Nidre prayer. Its words and flow are like a legal document and we traditionally chant it between two scrolls of Torah as “witnesses” to our declaration. At the close of the prayer, we offer our pleading reminder to G-d of past forgivenesses dating from the Exodus:

    “Vah-yoe-mare Adonai” (“And G-d said…”)

    We repeat the verse three times, each time our voices become more elevated, earnest, and hopeful. And then the response comes:

    “Sah-lach-tee kid-‘vorecha” (“I have pardoned, as you have asked.”)

    It comes down to the sincerity of the penitent. Sincerity is reflected in the penitent’s willingness to make teshuvah…(to “return”) and to never again repeat the transgression.

    Donald Trump has not only not asked for forgiveness, he doubles down rather than to promise to do better next time.

    This year, I was asked to (remotely) chant Kol Nidre for Congregation Adas Israel. As I did so, I thought deeply about my utterance of the words, sah-lach-tee kid-‘vorecha.

    Donald Trump has not asked for forgiveness and it is not my place to forgive him for the damage (and death) he has inflicted on others. He has not asked for forgiveness for inciting man against man. (It is after the first debate as I write this and he, characteristically, doubled down on his incitement.)

    We begin to close the Yom Kippur service by chanting the prayer, Unetanah tokef. In this prayer, we ponder who, in the coming year, will die by water, fire, sword, beast, famine, thirst, strangling, stoning, upheaval (!) and plague (!).

    It was during the closing of Yom Kippur that I knew my own path for forgiveness of Donald Trump. His “making peace” with us depends entirely on his commitment to making teshuvah.

    The path to Donald Trump’s forgiveness is wholly in his hands, not mine. It would profane the concept of Jewish forgiveness to forgive him before he asks, atones, and makes a solemn commitment to change.

    I am entirely at peace with my terms for my forgiveness of Donald Trump..

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