This Yom Kippur, as we struggle to ask forgiveness of the ones we’ve wronged and accept the forgiveness of those who have wronged us, a new and unsettling question hangs over many of us, one we’ve been grappling with since last November: Can we forgive the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump?
I realize that to some, the very question may sound preposterous, or even condescending. Who am I to forgive them, especially as they haven’t asked for my forgiveness? And even if I embrace them, won’t they find my embrace grating, another sign of a coastal elitist claiming the high moral ground? These are all valid questions. And, besides, those of us still reeling every day from the thoughts, the speeches, and the actions of the president may feel, as they ponder the idea of absolution, that it’s too soon to forgive those who put him in office.
To them—to us—I’d like to offer a few observations.
The first is to remember, always, that forgiveness is a dance. I mean that quite literally: The Hebrew word mechilah, to forgive, and the word machol, to dance, are related. Forgiveness is a process, not an event. And it impacts us as much as it does the person we decide to forgive, enabling us to open our heart and trust again. Like all good dances, this one, too, isn’t straightforward. It’s doesn’t happen instantly. It unfolds softly, over time and at its own pace.
And this year, many people might not feel, given the acute nature of our political chaos, that those who are responsible for having put us in this position deserve a pardon. I get that. Some of us aren’t yet ready to begin the dance. They—we—wonder if we can forgive without forgetting, without condoning, without holding a grudge.
An answer, perhaps, awaits us in the shofar’s blast, those broken down wails we heard only last week on Rosh Hashanah. Few know this, but we are commanded to hear the shofar in part to recall the agony of Sisera’s mother. Hazor’s mighty king, slayed by the fearless Yael, was as bitter an enemy as the Jews ever had, and yet here is the Book of Judges, taking a respite from the action to tell us that even this menacing foe had a mother who was devastated when her son failed to return home from the battlefield. As we blast the shofar, then, we do so in part to remind us that our enemies are human, and that they, too, deserve a moment of compassion and thought.
The warlike metaphor isn’t overblown. These days, some of us feel as if we’re on the path towards a civil war, and emotionally we do battles, all of us, with those who think differently. So even if we’re not ready to forgive just yet, we should take a moment to insist that we see each other always as nothing but fellow human beings. Have those fellow humans made a grievous error, one that put someone dangerous into power? Most likely. But we can still contemplate the dance of forgiveness without undermining our justified anger and fear. We can be judgmental, but in this season of judgment we should also heed the call to judge others l’kaf zechus, favorably and with mercy. We should never forget that other people have a different and complex calculus of choice, and that they had made their decision in November believing that it was the right one for the country. Instead of castigating them, let us not lose sight of their intentions, and remember that we need them if we’re ever to once again make this nation the beacon of light in a dark world we believe and know it can be.
Maybe, then, it’s best not to bother with forgiveness at all, especially as Trump’s voters, for the most part, have yet to take responsibility for what they’ve done. Maybe instead of talking about forgiving we can just pray to avoid the obvious trap that lies ahead, the trap of dehumanizing others. Maybe we can pray to God to keep our hearts pliant, to keep us from shutting down, to help us make room in our lives even for those whose mistakes have hurt us.
For some, even this first step towards reconciliation may be too hard. If it is, no worries. Real forgiveness has to be authentic, and if you feel it’s a lie, don’t do it. But if you can, when you think of those who unleashed this moral and ethical calamity on us, transcend your fury without denying it, then join me in this short prayer. It’s not a part of the canon, just a quick heartfelt meditation to help us get through the awe-filled days ahead: May the Source of Love awaken in me the capacity to forgive those who supported a candidate who has plunged us into darkness. May the Source of Love awaken in me the capacity to see them as human, to extend myself to understand their perspective, and to share with them a different perspective. And may the Source of Love awaken in them a recognition that our country deserves much better, so that we may all learn the skillful means that lead to greater understanding and, eventually, to real forgiveness. Amen.
Rabbi David Ingber is the founder and Senior Rabbi at Romemu, an egalitarian Jewish community for body, heart, and spirit.