“It is not ours to forgive, only to lead and help people to begin their penitence.”
In this sermon delivered April 2, 1967, Rabbi Olan describes the evolution from forgiveness through ritual in Temple times to a difficult but necessary internal process of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness is equally necessary when others hurt us and when we hurt others: grudge and guilt are both toxic. “We must forgive those who hurt us or we continue to pour a poison into our own bloodstream.”
Rabbi Olan concludes that it is not our forgiveness that cleanses those who have harmed us. Forgiveness that comes from another, even from God, is “cheap grace”. There is no repentance and no behavior change. When we do harm, we must begin by recognizing that we have gone against our own best sense of what is right, and become “truly penitent”. If we are trying to live according to the biblical faith, we will then turn to God and pray for help. Rabbi Olan’s point is that we are not strong enough to go through the ordeal of the forgiveness process without God’s help, but he recognizes that this may leave those without faith in despair.
However, even repentance and prayer are not enough. “[We] must begin to do some good deeds.” It is only when we turn our new attitude into action in the world that we truly begin to repent: a three-step process.
When it is we who have been harmed, it is not required that we forgive those who have harmed us. According to Rabbi Olan, even God cannot forgive the Holocaust. At the same time, to hold onto dreams of revenge poisons us. What we must do is to “help others to achieve a true forgiveness.” In this we are following in the footsteps of the prophets: “The prophets bring men to forgiveness, they do not bring forgiveness to men.” At the same time, we are also free to remember what was done to us, to learn from experience: “forgive but don’t forget.”
*Written by Frances M. Olan and Lionel S. Joseph*