A marked Jew, an accommodating nun, and a dying Nazi.
These characters take center stage in the moral drama presented by Simon Wiesenthal in his world-famous book, "The Sunflower," mandatory reading in many schools the world over due to the profound and stimulating discussion of ethics it generates.
The author – an Auschwitz Jew facing probable death at the hands of his cruel Nazi handlers – is brought before a fatally wounded S.S. soldier about to breathe his last. Before dying, the Nazi requests forgiveness from our Jew for participating in atrocities against the Jewish people.
An excerpt from his confession:
In vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might provide him a peaceful death"Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand, the man covered the child's eyes…then he jumped into the street. Seconds later, the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies…We shot…"
Viewing Simon as a representative of his people, he seeks to absolve himself and ease his unrelenting conscience through confessing and expressing his regret to him. He asks – no, begs – for a response, for confirmation that his remorse is accepted; in vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might provide him a peaceful death. Young Simon, torn and confused, himself still captive in a living hell manned by this man's comrades, holds his silence.
That silence will forever haunt him, tugging at his conscience till his last day.
The author concludes his book with:
"You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'What would I have done?'"
This question was later addressed to fifty-three noted religious and world thinkers (thirty-two in the first edition) and their responses make up a symposium presented as book two.
But what might the Torah's perspective be on this delicate issue? What does the book that communicates G‑d's wisdom, speaking on behalf of the creator of morals and ethics, have to say about this? If G‑d were confronted, so to speak, with this complex moral query, how would He respond?
An Ethical Check
Interestingly, it has been pointed out that without exception, every Christian respondent (as well as some representatives of other faiths) felt that Simon was wrong in not forgiving the Nazi murderer, while those who were Jewish believed he was right.
It has been suggested that this astonishing fact stems not from man's frail nature, the tendency to side with his own – in this case Jews with their coreligionists and Christians with theirs – but from the fundamentally different teachings of these respective religions.
it has been pointed out that every Christian respondent felt that Simon was wrong in not forgivingOn this issue, Judaism departs radically from other world religions, offering a unique viewpoint and a most necessary contribution to ethical thought.
The Unforgivable Sin
The single most evil generation chronicled in the Bible is undoubtedly the one that earned itself complete annihilation, having been entirely wiped out through the Great Flood.
Never before and never since has the world seen such complete destruction, as the old model was deemed irredeemable. The generation of the Flood was seen to possess no redeemable merit, hence the need for their utter demise.
How inconceivable is that?
Isn't the G‑d we worship a forgiving G‑d, always ready to accept penitence, turning nobody away? Isn't G‑d the very source of forgiveness?
Man to Man Combat
The answer lies in better understanding the cause of the destruction of this population. Why were they, of all generations ever to live, considered hopeless and incurable? In Judaism, is there any sin considered unforgivable and unworthy of absolution?
The Mishnah states:
For sins against G‑d, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) brings forgiveness. For sins against one's neighbor, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one's neighbor.
Isn't that ironic? This awesome Day of Pardon holds the power to absolve one of all of one's sins towards G‑d, but proves utterly useless in the face of crimes committed against one's fellow!
If we were measuring the harshness of sin, wouldn't the opposite be true? Wouldn't the offense against lowly man, a mere creation and subject of G‑d, rank lower than the affront to G‑d, his creator and master?
But the point here is simple. On this unique day of clemency, in a show of unrestrained compassion, G‑d forgives any sin He can, but He does not forgive those he "cannot."
G‑d forgives any sin He can, but He does not forgive those he "cannot"He remains unforgiving when it comes to an offense committed against man not due to a lack of will, which would be quite un-G‑dly, but rather, as He Himself willed it to be, due to a lack of "right" or "power" to forgive sins committed unto others.
He gave the injured party a power He withheld from Himself.
Only those who were wronged can right.
Only he who has suffered, against whom a crime has been committed, is entitled to forgive, if he so desires. He alone can exercise that right.
The sinners who brought on the Flood sinned not against G‑d as much as they did against their neighbors. They robbed and cheated each other blind. They lived and breathed deceit. They were a society gone rotten, ethically bankrupt as a whole. All they wanted in life was to bring each other down, rejoicing in each other's suffering.
Never before or after this wicked era was mankind that corrupt.
And yet, as evil as these men were, they still retained a residue of conscience. At times they would feel remorse. Rarer, but existent, were moments when they sought to resolve their conflicts. But unlike those experiencing these moments, their neighbors, not afflicted with guilt at the time, wouldn't hear of reconciliation. With ill-concealed pleasure, those seeking forgiveness were turned away. And when they were visited similarly by the very individuals who rejected them, they responded in kind.
Ultimately, as close to appeasement as these people may have come, the end-result was always the same: hard feelings and the exchange of even harsher words and actions. They were "close, but no cigar."
For failing in their attempt to gain forgiveness from one another, thus remaining in actuality un-forgiven, they sentenced themselves to move on from this world where decency, civility, and decorum are a must.
For G‑d could not forgive as long as those were wronged did not.
NO in Capital Letters
To come back, then, to our inquiry of how Torah would respond to the question raised by Wiesenthal.
The question is not a moral one, pertaining to right or wrong, although it is loosely related; it is, rather, a question of fact, concerning ability: Has one the power to forgive for another?
The real question is not whether or not he should have forgiven, but whether or not he could have Thus, the real question, overlooked by many of the respondents, is not whether or not Simon should have forgiven the Nazi, but whether or not he could have forgiven him.
Perhaps his response could have been: "I may want to (especially given the circumstances) but I simply am not able to."
This is Torah's answer and attitude, derived from an eliminated generation seeking absolution from G‑d for sins towards man: an unequivocal no.
The victim alone owns the copyright to forgive the criminals who committed crimes against him. Anyone who speaks on his behalf, without permission, is no different than a common thief.
What's in It for Me?
This simple yet novel idea underscores the power entrusted to man by G‑d. He alone, from all of creation, can both commit and absolve an act that falls outside of G‑d's jurisdiction, so to speak. The one domain that G‑d handed over to us, providing us with total autonomy, is the sphere of forgiveness—for those acts committed against us personally.
Undeniably, this is a huge honor, coupled with an even greater responsibility.
One which He, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, saw fit to bestow upon mankind alone.
Let us make Him proud.