During Elul, the theme of forgiveness is uppermost in the consciousness of every Jew. We search for references to this important theme in our weekly Torah portions.
Last week we read: “… Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel…and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel…and they will be absolved of bloodguilt.” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).
But Ki Tetzei is devoid of explicit references to forgiveness, so I decided to search beneath the surface. Far from exuding a spirit of forgiveness, there’s a passage that reflects almost inexplicable harshness concerning the ben sorer u’moreh, the wayward and defiant son.
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town…. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst….” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Our sages questioned the fairness of such a harsh punishment. Rashi reasons that this boy’s behavior indicates a life of criminality; he will steal and even murder to satisfy his base desires. But we, especially if we have been parents, understandably search for some ray of hope.
One such ray is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b: “…if his parents wish to forgive him, he is forgiven.”
Rashi’s explanation would appear to demand that this potential murderer be eliminated. Why should parental mercy endanger the welfare of society?
One approach to understanding the power of parental forgiveness is provided by Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik. In Maayanei HaChaim (Wellsprings of Life), he argues that the assumption that the young man is so wayward he will never overcome his perverse tendencies must be abandoned if experts testify he can be rehabilitated. Asks Rabbi Chaim, “What greater experts can there be than this boy’s own parents?” If they forgive him, it must be that they have detected in him the capacity to shed the passions of youth that have led him astray.
Another approach rests upon my observations as a psychotherapist, when I learned that forgiveness changes the behavior of the forgiven person. People who have offended others are often so moved by being forgiven that they commit to a future of exemplary behavior.
Sometimes we think there is a risk to forgiving those who have offended us. We ask ourselves, “Are we not absolving him from his responsibilities?”
But I have found that forgiving the offender sends a message that enables correcting of former habits. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
I must cite a “higher authority” referred to in
Laws, and more laws, and
more laws. Well, I guess that kept
130:4, “But with You there is forgiveness; therefore, You are feared.”
As we approach the High Holy Days, let us be moved by the Almighty’s power of forgiveness to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, and improve our ways so that we deserve His blessings for a blessed New Year.