Sunday, September 13, 2015

Dwelling On Forgiveness

Human Qualities

David and Absalom (1956), by Marc Chagall, who is known for his many paintings of biblical scenes: “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time,” Chagall told Franz Meyer in the early 1930s. Absalom's name in Hebrew is אַבְשָׁלוֹם (Avshalom), which means “my father is peace.”
Photo Credit & Source: WikiArt; the painting is held at Musée Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

In the painting of “David and Absalom,” by Chagall, Absalom, the son of King David, seeks forgiveness from his father, who grants him a pardon. This absolves Absalom, who was wanted for murder, the penalty of which was death. The circumstances of the crime are as follows: Absalom told his servants to murder his half-brother, Amnon, as an act of retaliation for raping Tamar. his sister, and then further dishonoring her by refusing to marry her (thus defying convention).

Undoubtedly, Absalom thought himself morally right for the murder, considering it as retributive justice for the failure of King David to punish Amnon for his immoral act—despite pleas from Tamar and Absalom’s mother and from Absalom himself. It is important to note that Absalom waited two years to carry out this crime of vengeance.

Afterwards, he goes into hiding as a fugitive for a year, before being allowed to return under house arrest for another two years. Then, through some political manipulations of Joab, King David’s commanding officer and chief counselor, Absalom is granted an audience with King David, his father. This leads to the scene depicted by Chagall’s painting: “So Joab came to the king, and told him; and when he had called for Absalom, he came to the king, and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom.” (2 Samuel 14:33)

Yet, despite being pardoned and forgiven for murder, Absalom, lacking the necessary gratitude, fails to be placated; his heart is full of vengeance, leading him to a desire for power, the Bible says: “But Absalom sent spies throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying: ‘As soon as ye hear the sound of the horn, then ye shall say: Absalom is king in Hebron’ ” (2 Samuel 15:10). When Absalom plans and executes a revolt, attempting to gain his father’s throne, he is killed by Joab, David’s commanding officer and chief counselor, who plunges three javelins into his heart.

When told of his son’s death, Kind David weeps:
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)
Although this story is about an extreme case, involving both rape and murder, it is instructive on the level of human behaviours and human relations. It can also show how things can spin out of control and take a life of their own, with a destructive result.

The story is a tragic one, no doubt, and one thinks post-facto what would have happened if King David had, at least, forced Amnon to marry Tamar. Or if King David would have punished Amnon? Would the story have ended in a different way, without the death of both Amnon and Absalom, his sons? Probably, but this is not certain. Absalom did not want forgiveness, seeing this as a sign of weakness; he wanted justice as he understood it, and nothing else would suffice. Many lessons can be extracted from it, including on morality, on justice and on forgiveness. I will here focus on forgiveness. [For the standard view based on the teachings and rules of Maimonides, see here.]

Forgiveness is not easy; it is not easy to accept; it is often harder to offer. Yet, it is one of the necessary requirements of bettering human relations. It is an integral part of the religious teachings of the Abrahamic faiths (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam ), and, perhaps, of all religions. It is also found in the secular and humanistic and philosophical teachings of the modern age. Forgiveness (incl. self-forgiveness) is written in the texts of psychological self-help books, so important is the idea. It is an act of acceptance; it is a act of restoration; it is an act of love. It might well be an act of ensuring sanity and of securing a healthy well-adjusted mind.

It is often reported that a forgiving person is often in better health, both mentally and physically, and, of course, spiritually. Knowing that this is indeed true can help a person take the necessary steps to offer forgiveness and to accept it from others. Forgiveness is not easy, and the reasons are complex and emotional, but it seems that one reason is that not forgiving or not accepting forgiveness often gives a person a sense of moral superiority. In the story of David and Absalom, it seems clear to me that the father was able to forgive, but the son was not.

When this takes place, which happens today in many instances and for many reasons, it does nothing to repair the relationship or to bring the hurt parties any closer to reconciliation. But there are some persons who “feed” their egos on the “food” of resentments, though it is not likely healthy in the long-term. Some carry their resentments further, seeking justice in other forms, either pecuniary or punitive. (Often people seek impersonal legal remedies or recompense in lieu of personal ones; these often act as substitutes for reconciliation.)

Is forgiveness harder to pursue with the persons with whom you were most intimate, with whom you shared secrets, with whom you had developed a long-term relationship, and for whom there was once affection and respect?  It would seem so; forgiveness becomes harder in proportion to the intimacy and importance of the relationship. The closer that the bond once was, the more harder it is to approach the idea of forgiveness. Vengeance and the ideas of justice will interfere, whatever these might be, with the idea and act of forgiveness. Yet, when it is offered or received, and there is repentance and acceptance, it is all the more poignant and powerful.

In the Jewish calendar, the first of Tishrei (Rosh HaShanah, a Jewish New Year) begins a period of reflection, repentance and atonement. This period is called the Ten Days of Repentance (Hebrew: עשרת ימי תשובה‎, Aseret Yemei Teshuva), which ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is common tradition that during this period one asks for forgiveness. Rosh HaShanah, and this period of reflection and repentance, begins tonight after sunset. Shanah Tovah Umetukah. May everyone have a good and sweet year.