Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seven."  (The Gospel of Matthew 18:21-22)

Accustomed to the “three strikes and you’re out” rule, most of us imagine forgiveness in conditional terms.  How can an Amish community, grieving the savage killing of five innocent children, forgive the perpetrator and then offer support to the shooter’s family?[1] How can a Holocaust survivor live with memories of a Nazi officer leading his parents and siblings to death in a gas chamber?[2]  How does a doctor in Gaza forgive the soldiers in tanks who decimated his home and claimed the lives of three of his five children?[3]  How can any of us forgive those who intentionally inflict harm and justify evil deeds with talk of righteousness? I think forgiving “seven times seven” calls us not to deny evil, but repeatedly to face darkness with light. Doing so requires deep faith and real courage." Yet I believe that in going through the painful and anguished process of forgiving others, we ourselves are transformed.

Grace, I know this is not a mere coincidence. I attended a youth discussion this morning with my children at their first day of Sunday School and the topic happened to be forgiveness. I wish I could share in this forum the hour’s worth of sharp arguments and conversations. It was clear that forgiveness is complex, and part of the noble behavior that a Muslim strives to attain. The Quran and the Sunnah offer depictions of the virtues underlying it: determination, grace, patience, self-control and a strong desire to “do good.” Forgiveness is also described as having tangible, positive consequences; some are enjoyed in this world, such as turning adversaries into friends, and others are granted in the hereafter. Reflecting on the power of forgiveness is inspiring, and knowing that the All-Forgiving is willing to forgive us over and over again is deeply humbling. One of my favorite reminders of this is the verse, “…and let them pardon and overlook, would you not like that God should forgive you?” (al-Nur 24:22)

Grace, this is also a timely topic for me, since Jews are currently in the period of what we call the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, a time for repentance and forgiveness.  The text from Matthew and your reflection made me think of Maimonides, who cautions: “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”[4]  Maimonides’ code is sensitive to the realities of interpersonal relations: it can be quite difficult to forgive another who has hurt you deeply, and some actions seem entirely unforgiveable. At the same time, refusing to forgive another is inevitably more hurtful to the person who bears the grudge.  I am also reminded of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and the terrible pain he ultimately endures because of his own cruelty.

[2] See the memoir of Holocaust survivor Benjamin Hirsch and Elie Wiesel’s The Fifth Son.
[4] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2, 10. There is an excellent online resource of Maimonides’ works in English translation at Chabad’s website.


  1. Forgiveness is hard from both directions. Difficult to ask for it and, often, difficult to grant. As my 5 year old was telling me yesterday: "sometimes I'm too angry and not ready." I think that "not yet" is an important step on the road to forgiveness. As in, "I want to forgive you, little brother, for throwing your toy and breaking my sculpture from camp, but I'm not yet ready because I'm too darn angry."

    1. That's so true, Rebecca. Children are so wise and honest. Forgiveness requires a readiness that is usually not possible when a person is angry. If forgiveness--both asking for and granting it--is a process, as Grace wrote, then it by definition takes time. Change that happens instantly and without introspection is probably not the transformation of true forgiveness.