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Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz Headshot

Mandela, Lincoln and the Tutsis: A Future Built on Forgiveness

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There are hurts so deep that forgiveness of those who did the hurting seems impossible. I have encountered so many who have become alienated from people they love over a disagreement that no longer matters. Neither was able to ask for or give forgiveness and so they parted ways.

The Jewish tradition teaches us, however, that we should emulate G-d's ways (halachta b'drachav), and that G-d is forgiving. In the selichot liturgy each year around the High Holidays, we recite, "Mochail avonot amo, ma'avir rishon rishon, marbeh mechilah, l'chot'im uslichah l'fosh'im. Oseh tzedakot im kol basar v'ruach, lo karatam tigmol" -- "G-d deals righteously with all and does tzedek (justice), pardoning chot'im (careless wrongdoers) and forgiving posh'im (intentional wrongdoers)." Forgiving others here is connected to tzedek; forgiveness of those who have erred is a fulfillment of justice, an act of healing relationships and society. Part of what it means to be righteous is to be a forgiver. To understand that humans are fallible and to be loving of others who stumble. G-d models humility for us by forgiving us.

Rav Yisrael of Rizhin distinguishes between the solaiach and the salchan. The solaiach is one who forgives when she is in the mood, in an arbitrary rather than intrinsic way. The salchan, on the other hand, forgives time after time, as it is a core point of his natural identity as a forgiver. To perpetuate opportunities to forgive and to repair relationships is to be a salchan. Some people hurt us so much that we cannot merely forgive them one time; rather, we need to forgive them in your heart time and time again. This helps us not only to heal but also to cultivate a very deep virtue.

This process has another step. Just as we are obligated to forgive others, so too are we commanded not to bear a grudge (lo titor). This commandment is in the same biblical verse as the command to love others like ourselves. Forgiving another is about the past; removing a grudge, on the other hand, is about a present sense of indebtedness. To truly love another, we must move beyond entitlement and release our grudges.

How does this apply to our lives? We can observe historic choices of whether to seek forgiveness and its dramatic consequences. To be forgiving is to be courageous, and leaders who try to heal long-standing conflicts often pay with their lives. About a month before his assassination, in his second inaugural address near the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, President Abraham Lincoln famously said, "With malice toward none, with charity for all," but he added that forgiveness entailed much work: " bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace..."

In the past 20 years, South Africa is the prime example of a nation that pursued a path of forgiveness, bolstered by the formidable stature of its political and religious leaders, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1994, South Africa had peaceful elections to elect its first black majority government. Then, in spite of predictions that this government would unleash a vengeful bloodbath against the former apartheid white rulers, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Nobel laureate Archbishop Tutu, helped heal the country. Instead of putting all the perpetrators (mostly white) on trial, or granting a general amnesty that would do nothing to defuse the hatred, South Africa tried a different course. Archbishop Tutu wrote:

They saw the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities were given amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of the facts of the offence. Instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

As long as the torturers and murderers would acknowledge their crimes and ask for forgiveness, the victims would in turn forgive them, and the state would not pursue further action against them. Incredibly, this tactic avoided the violence that gripped so many other nations. For example, In Zimbabwe (formerly the white-ruled Rhodesia), President Robert Mugabe rejected reconciliation, established an ironclad dictatorship and chose to reward his political allies by violently seizing property even from white farmers who chose to work with the new government.

In the same year, 1994, in Rwanda, the spirit of vengeance ruled. Long-standing resentment erupted in genocidal chaos as murderous bands of Hutus, incited by radio broadcasts, murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by hacking them to death with machetes and clubs, or shooting them at close range. Even Tutsis in churches, hospitals, old age homes and orphanages were not safe. Unfortunately, the world was largely quiescent as nearly 1 million people were murdered over just a few short months. While today Rwanda is seeking to defuse the hatred through providing basic services to as many people as possible, the wounds have not fully healed. This May 26, President Jakaya Kikwete of neighboring Tanzania called on Rwanda to negotiate with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the remnant of the genocidal murderers of 1994, who still engage in murder, rape and torture. This was considered deeply offensive to the Rwandan government, since the call for negotiations came during the 100-day annual period of mourning for the genocide. There are offenses for which forgiveness must wait.

Forgiveness is hard, and sometimes seemingly impossible. However, before we decide that we cannot forgive, we should consider the price of not seeking forgiveness, and try to be the salchan who follows the command of lo titor. As Archbishop Tutu points out, "Retribution leads to a cycle of reprisal, leading to counter-reprisal in an inexorable movement, as in Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and in the former Yugoslavia. The only thing that can break that cycle, making possible a new beginning, is forgiveness. Without forgiveness there is no future." There really is no better way to say it than that: Without forgiveness there is no future.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."