The rabbis imagine King Solomon, considered the wisest figure in the Bible, saying, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the red heifer.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)
I struggle to understand a great many things. In particular I labor to understand the events of this past week.
These words echo in my thoughts. “I forgive you! You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, uttered these words. They were said at the bond hearing of confessed murderer Dylann Roof. I find these sentiments both remarkable and incomprehensible.
Whereas forgiveness is central to Christian teachings, although the depths of such forgiveness may very well exceed that of many Christians, justice is paramount to Judaism. How can murder ever be forgiven? How can a human being offer something that belongs to God? And yet, forgiveness of another, and especially of such an egregious crime, prevents someone from wallowing in anger.
Then again, the lack of justice, and the familiar repetition of such massacres, gnaws at my soul. I turn angry. Once again the combination of guns, mental illness and racism have transformed hatreds into massacres. Add Charleston to the list of Newtown, Oak Creek and Aurora to name a few.
Forgiveness has its virtues. It is a balm for the soul. Perhaps it allows the mourners to remain closer to those they lost. Their forgiveness makes more room for their remembrances. They can remember their loved ones. They can mourn their losses rather than fixating on the justice that continues to appear ever more distant.
Commentators suggest that the bizarre sacrificial ritual of the red heifer, detailed in this week’s portion, is a method for safeguarding the ritual cleanliness of the priesthood. It guarantees that his sins might not despoil the sacrifices. We no longer offer sacrifices. We have no method for ensuring our purity. All human beings are given to wrongdoing. We cannot be rescued from our wrongs by the sprinkling of blood. Instead we must engage in repentance. The turning of the heart is within our hands. Forgiveness, however, remains in the hands of others. Forgiveness is elusive.
I return to my anger. Some, and perhaps these days we might say far too many,are given to evil.
When will we say, “Enough?” Is removing the Confederate flag enough? Symbols of hate are indeed powerful. But such hatred must be banished from the heart. How can we transform our anger into action and address the constellation of problems (and not just their symbols) that make this a recurring tale.
Even our president has been relegated to the role of chief priest. He leads us in mourning. He intones our tragedies. But such massacres are not tragedies. A tragedy is unavoidable. I remain convinced that we can do so much more to eliminate the litany of such mass murders. Let us say, “Enough!” Let us be stirred to action.
Anger has its merits. It can serve to build a better society. Let our anger be transformed into righteousness. Forgiveness remains with God.