Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiveness and the Scent of a Violet

I'm thinking about forgiveness tonight. I wonder what it means and whether it's possible. I've thought about it before, talked about it with my students in the context of collective tragedies. It's an idea that distresses me, one over which I have been known to agonize as I consider, at times, asking someone for forgiveness, and at others being asked for forgiveness.

What if we cannot forget?

Forgiveness--at least, what we understand to be forgiveness--can occur only in the
case of two people. One person who is wronged has the option, or the opportunity, to forgive the person who violated the friendship (or acquaintance or relationship) in some way. I cannot, in other words, forgive the woman who spoke unkindly to my sister; only my sister can forgive that woman.

It is in this sense that, in Judaism, the only unforgiveable sin is that of murder. Why? Because the person who has the grievance is no longer here to offer forgiveness. This is, of course, why all of the talk that surfaced in the post-1945 years about Jews needing to "forgive" the Nazis for atrocities they committed during the Holocaust is ridiculous. The witnesses to these atrocities--the drowned, as both Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben would say--are absent.

I have
found that it is so easy to talk about forgiveness in this context--in the great big context that trumps all others. There is a formula: perpetrator + no victim = no forgiveness. It is not so simple when it comes to, well, the simpler things--the daily betrayals that we enact and receive, sometimes without thinking twice.

When I was very young, I remember reading out of some book of sweet little sayings that I had discovered in one of my mother's
bookcases. I remember coming across one little saying that seemed to speak to my unsophisticated little self: "Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that crushes it." I loved that saying for some reason. I took a pair of scissors and, when my mother wasn't looking, snipped that little passage right out of her book, pressing my neat little paper square of wisdom between the pages of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which I was also reading at the time.

I named my favorite doll Violet. The one who has been crushed. One day I looked at Violet, the homemade rag doll, and I took those same scissors and cut off all of her mahogany yarn hair. I cut it down to the scalp. And then I laid down next to her and took a nap, yearning for her sweetness.

As I grew older, I remember time and time again finding that little square of paper in various books. Each time I discovered it, I would move it to a new book, never understanding why I kept it. The last time I disovered it, I was in my senior year of college. Suddenly my eyes took in its silliness, and I felt embarrassed about having loved those words for so many years. I had saved it because of the sweetness I had perceived in it--I could virtually smell that crushed flower's scent in my nostrils.

Did it give me some unconscious license to metaphorically smash others, expecting that they would reward me with sweetness?

But there is no sweetness in betrayal, nor in the forgiveness of betrayal. And yet we are compelled to make everything sweet. We don't want to consider that the heel that crushes the violet will keep walking,
smashing everything it comes into contact with, until the sweet scent of forgiveness is no longer discernable.

If this thought becomes debilitating, I revert to thinking about forgiveness in the context of responsibility
, something that we see emerge throughout the Talmud. Is it my responsibility to forgive someone who betrays me? And what if I betray someone else--is it their responsibility to forgive me if I am penitent? And if they don't? Must I forgive their incapacities? One wonders how many layers make up the bittersweet bread of forgiveness.
And, of course, one also wonders what happens to love in all of this.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Holiness and the Temporary

The festival of Sukkot (or, the Feast of Tabernacles) begins tonight at sundown. The holiday marks the 40-yr period during which Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. For this reason, the idea of temporary dwellings becomes literal, and a family will build a Sukkah in which to reside--or at least eat meals--during the holiday.

The prayer that is said over meals eaten in the Sukkah--Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leisheiv basukkah--is translated as "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to dwell in the sukkah."

There is holiness in the temporary.

But there is also something magical about the temporary. At least, there was when we were children. How many times have we observed young children building tents in their bedrooms out of blankets and comforters, laughing with delight as they then crawl into their own magical spaces? I remember how my younger brothers used to build "forts" in their bedrooms or outside in the backyard. These spaces were small and temporary, but they were special.

And I also remember how, many years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of 30 6-year-old children, and during the holiday I helped them build a Sukkah in our already crowded classroom. The children, who moments before had been out of control--and who, the week before, had turned their Torah scroll crafts into swords with which they would demolish each other--seemed to somehow sense the special-ness, the holiness, of the temporary space, and immediately became quiet, looks of awe on their little faces. (Then again, I was probably the only Sunday school teacher in the history of that church to sneakily teach the little Christian children to build a Sukkah!)

As adults, we get to a point where we stop creating these magical, temporary kinds of spaces. We search for something more stable, something that will be around forever, that can't easily be knocked down. We forget that there is holiness even in the temporary.

I wonder if this also translates to emotional and relationship spaces, not just physical spaces. Is there something holy about the friendships and relationships we maintain with people for only brief periods of time? Do we destroy their magic by asking more from them than they can give?
Addendum to the original post: More paintings like the one featured above can be seen at the artist's website.