The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins this Wednesday night. We call the time from then to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the “ten days of repentance” and they are the supreme moments of holiness of Jewish time. The theme of these days is apology and forgiveness. We confess our sins, ask to be forgiven, and pray that we may be given another year of life to try again and do better next time.
Of all virtues, forgiveness is among the most important, and its absence the most destructive. I have known marriages fail, families divided and communities split apart simply because the two sides could not bring themselves to forgive and ask to be forgiven. Why should they? After all, they were in the right and the others in the wrong. That is how self-righteousness wrecks lives.
All the more so on a larger scale, within or between nations. In the run-up to the conflict in Bosnia, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman manipulated the stories that Serbs and Croats told about themselves, each portraying his group as heroic victims. Milosevic in particular played on the theme of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.
Unforgiveness has a long memory. As Ogden Nash said, nobody forgets where he buried the hatchet.
I visited Pristina in 1999 at the end of the Kosovo conflict. The military chaplains serving the UN force told me that if the two sides could forgive one another, there might be peace. If not, the conflict could reignite at any time. Forgiveness is the most powerful form of conflict resolution. It does not solve the problem that generated the conflict, but it unblocks the road to it. It does not stop people injuring one another but it helps to heal the wounds. It does not change the past but it allows us not to be held captive by it.
Forgiveness emerges as the central theme of the book of Genesis, if we know how to read the story beneath the stories. Genesis is about sibling rivalry. It tells the tale of four sets of brothers: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. On the face of it this is simply a set of variations on a theme, but actually it is as closely structured as a four-movement symphony. We can see this if we ignore the other details and simply look at the closing scene in each of the four relationships.
The first story ends in fratricide. Cain kills Abel in a fit of anger and envy. The second ends in reconciliation: Isaac and Ishmael stand together at Abraham’s grave. The third culminates in an utterly unexpected scene of brotherly emotion. Jacob and Esau meet after 22 years. Jacob had been dreading the encounter. He thought Esau was going to kill him. Yet the two brothers embrace and weep and go their separate ways in peace.
The fourth – Joseph and his brothers – is told at the greatest length. Joseph has every reason to resent his siblings. They had planned to kill him. They sold him into slavery. They robbed him of his home, his freedom, his youth. Yet in the scene with which Genesis ends he does more than forgive them. He says: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”
In the language of cognitive therapy, Joseph reframes the entire narrative. He no longer thinks of the bad moments of the past, but of the good they made possible.
Genesis could be subtitled: from fratricide to forgiveness to fraternity. Then we turn the pages to the Book of Exodus, and find Moses, Aaron and Miriam, two brothers and a sister, leading the people together. Exodus, the story of freedom, can only begin when Genesis, the work of reconciliation, has been done.
God forgives when we forgive, and we can only forgive because God forgives. That virtuous circle is the antidote, perhaps the only one, to the vicious circle of wounds nursed and avenged. It was a supreme religious insight to say that this is how a new year should begin. May it be how it continues, as well.
(First published in The Times)