“18” …And the healing power of forgiveness.
I write this on the eve of Yom Kippur (yo-m kee-poor), the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is the pinnacle of a period of reflection that began on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, a little over a week ago. As the tradition goes, on Rosh Hashana the “book of life” is written, and on Yom Kippur the book is sealed. Who will live, who will die (and how), etc.
Observant Jews everywhere supplicate themselves this past week and over the next day, confessing to God their sins as a community and individually. “We have done X…” “I have done Y…,” while asking for forgiveness. But there is a catch. God can only forgive sins against God. It is up to each person to seek and offer forgiveness between fellow humans. Of course, only if you make it through the next year relatively unscathed do you know what God wrote and what was “sealed in the book of life” when the gates of heaven close tomorrow evening. Or so they say.
This is why today you will see many of your Jewish friends offering and asking for forgiveness in your social media feeds. I’ve done this. I’ll do it again today, I consider it a “catch-all” for situations I may not be aware of. If I am aware that I’ve wronged you, really, I need to seek your forgiveness directly, just as I should offer it directly, to your face if possible.
The lesson here is important. The idea is not that you can do anything you want all year long and then beg forgiveness (and maybe get it) in one week or one day. The lesson is that forgiveness releases you to move on with life, whether you are the forgiver or the forgivee. This is a universal concept, and while it plays out in different ways in various religions, an observance of faith is irrelevant to the fact that forgiveness is a powerful tool for a rich life.
I never really understood this until well into adulthood. In the early 1990’s I became involved with Bill Pelke and the Journey of Hope …From Violence to Healing. Bill talks about how Jesus was asked how many times we should forgive. Seven times? 70 times? Jesus replied “70x7,” and as Bill says it, “That doesn’t mean we can stop forgiving on the 491st time. It means forgiveness should be a way of life.”
Bill Pelke’s experience, and that of so many others I’ve met while working to end the death penalty has shown me in unmistakable terms the healing power of forgiveness. The people on the Journey are murder victim family members who have come to forgiveness for the people who killed their loved ones. It was never easy — not for any of them. For some, forgiveness opened a path that even had them working to help get the killer off of death row.
It’s powerful stuff. The rage and the desire for vengeance are palpable, and the more gifted of these story tellers make us feel that hurt and anger as they share their personal journeys. And then they show us how forgiveness can allow us to offer love and compassion even to people who have wronged us in the most horrible ways. This is the hardest part for most of the murder victim family members I know, but when they come to forgiveness, they let go of the hate one must have to desire vengeance, and begin to heal.
This does not mean we don’t want to be safe from dangerous offenders or that they should not be held accountable for their actions. However, in handing those responsibilities to the state we release the state and taxpayers from the obligation to kill in order for victims families to have vengeance in their individual cases. (By the way, the percentage of victims families whose killer ends up being executed is miniscule, so offering executions so that victims can heal is pure political pandering. I’ll write about that soon.)
The Journey of Hope …From Violence to Healing is a speaking tour where folks like Bill and others share their stories. It is led by murder victim family members who are joined by the families of people on death row, families of the executed, exonerated death row survivors and others touched by the issue of state vengeance known more commonly as capital punishment.
I’m helping to organize the upcoming Journey in Texas, which starts in Houston two weeks from today. From October 13–29, we will share the Journey message of “Love and compassion for all of humanity,” in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Some of the public events will be live-streamed, and many more conversations will happen in classrooms, faith communities, etc.
Now, where does “18” come in (from my headline).
Another year-round Jewish tradition is charitable giving, but especially at holiday times. Like today. When we dig deep into our own resources to fill the plates of others, we encourage God to throw open His bank account of abundant blessings to each of us, to be judged with mercy and compassion for a truly happy, healthy and sweet year.
Many Jews give in multiples of 18 — an often confounding number for non-Jews who process those gifts. “Why does this guy always send us $36?” they ask.
The answer? “That’s a double-chai!”
The eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is “Chet” (a guttural “H” sound + et). The tenth letter is “Yud” (yould — like would, but with a y). Together they spell “Chai” (Hi with that guttural :H” sound. Think about the Fiddler on the Roof song, “L’Chayim, L’Chayim, to Life!”
Chai is the Hebrew word for life, so gifts in multiples of 18 are intended to promote life.
All of this is to say that you can, right now, be about forgiveness and promote life by contributing $18 or more (or less) to support the upcoming Texas Journey of Hope. Here’s the link: https://www.youcaring.com/TXJourneyViolencetoHealing.
Thank you. If you are fasting, I wish you an easy fast. And for everyone — I forgive you. Please forgive me. May you be Sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year….
Abraham J. Bonowitz is the co-founder and co-director of Death Penalty Action and State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Ohio for Amnesty International USA. Follow him on Twitter @abrahambonowitz