America has a real opportunity to gauge its capacity for forgiveness in Michael Vick. Americans love their pets and especially their dogs. But here was a man who ran an illegal dog fighting operation that engaged in the most horrific treatment of pitbulls imaginable, including electrocuting them, shooting them, and drowning them. Few of us can even comprehend such barbarism.
But he went to prison for two years, paid a million dollar fine, found G-d through Tony Dungy, the former head coach of the Baltimore Colts, devotes himself to spreading the message of ethical treatment of animals, and sounds genuinely repentant. And we ought to accept his repentance.
The ability to change one's way, to be forgiven for one's past errors, is the hallmark of every world faith. Without a belief that people can fundamentally reorient their lives, most of us would be done in. On a regular basis, I counsel men who have been abusive to their families, women who have been unfaithful to their husbands, and children who told their parents they wanted them to die. I meet businessmen who have gone to prison for theft, politicians who abused the public trust, and journalists who fabricated stories. They seek a new path, forgiveness for their sins, an opportunity to heal the pain they have caused, a chance to be born anew. And in each situation our response ought to be the same. Repentance is meaningless as a verbal commitment. Telling us you regret your actions is only a start. Real redemption comes about through positive and sustained action. In essence, you can be forgiven for the bad you did once you have shown a capacity to reorient your life and practice ongoing good, particularly in the area where you caused harm. But to deny to any of these people the opportunity to start anew is to deny the simple truth that each of us is comprised of angelic and demonic inclinations and that with real effort the former can finally triumph over the latter.
America is generally becoming a harsher, more judgmental society. Turn on the radio on any given day and you'll hear the mortal combat of left versus right, liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican that has come to define the American political discourse. When I spoke to a conservative political group recently about President Obama, I explained my principled opposition to many of the President's policies, especially toward Israel. I said I found the President to be mature, charismatic, highly intelligent, and well-intentioned. But his pressure on Israel for a unilateral ban on settlements was prejudicial, misguided, ill-informed, and ultimately destructive to any possibility of peace. Pressure on the Arabs to accept Israel's existence and respect their own people's rights is what was necessary, and Obama was simply too soft on tyrants. I was astonished at the response. 'The President is none of those things. He's a fool and he's a fraud.' Okay. We can resort to character assassination. We certainly witnessed the lengths to which some on the left were prepared to go in destroying the good name of George W. Bush. And we can continue to divide this country along political lines. But are any of us properly served when we can find no good in our fellow Americans?
It was even sadder listening to Israelis last week when leading a trip for Mayanot-Birthright. The secular-religious divide in Israel is simply out of control. So many of the secular Israelis I spoke to hate the religious. They characterize them as freeloaders who refuse to serve in the army and live off the public purse. They are backward Neanderthals who preach intolerance and hate. And it affects their views of Judaism. While the American participants on the trip were thrilled to be Bar Mitzva'd at the Wall (only a handful of our men and women had even had that central rite of passage), our Israeli participants mostly sat and watched, refusing to be touched by the light of Jewish life. Conversely, many of the religious spoke of secular Israelis as hedonists who have no morality and are deeply ashamed of their Jewishness. What seems astonishing is how neither group accepts the absolute necessity of the other. Without secular Israelis who largely built the country and work so hard to defend and maintain it, religious Jews would not have the security and freedom that is the hallmark of Israeli democracy. Conversely, without religious Jews sustaining Jewish commitment and observance there might be precious little to fight for, as Israel becomes more and more like any other decadent Western nation. But judging and dismissing is so much easier than forgiving and embracing one another.
I am not so naïve as to believe that the simple story of an American athlete seeking redemption will heal these vast divides. And yet, there is something to learn from the fall from grace of a man who had once had the most lucrative contract in NFL history and whom few ever expected to see redeemed. The lesson is this: with rare exceptions, there is always a way back. True, there are some sins for which there is no repentance, and I have long believed that Israel ought to have the same death penalty for cold-hearted terrorists that we have here in the United States. But for the vast majority of human sin, there is always a way to repent. It involves a genuine acknowledgment and admission of error, restitution for the crime, acceptance of a harsh but just penalty, and a lifelong commitment to positive action that will negate the harm done. More than anything else, it involves turning to G-d, the source of life and renewal. For a man who has been unfaithful it means showing his wife extravagant affection. For someone guilty of theft on Wall Street it would mean educating business school graduates on the importance of honor and ethics in the market.
For Israeli society it means having the Yeshivas take out a few hours a week to practice acts of gratitude and thanks to the brave soldiers, the majority secular, who defend them, such as raising money to build swimming pools to mitigate the sweltering heat of some of the army bases that we visited. And for secular Israelis it would mean volunteering, maybe once a month, to assist religious families, say, build a new room to accommodate their ever-growing families. Yes, one might say that their children are their own responsibilities. But then one of the Jewish people's greatest challenges is simple demographic survival and every Jewish child born is another brick in the edifice of an eternally-challenged people.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. In September he will release his new book, The Blessing of Enough.
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