In December 1989, my parents were driving from New Bedford, Mass., to Teaneck, N.J., in the pre-dawn hours of a freezing Friday morning to spend time with my family, when their car broke down on a Massachusetts highway. A man pulled up in front of their car. My parents thought he would help them. Instead, he threatened my father with a knife and robbed them, leaving my father dying of cardiac arrest as my mother desperately tried to revive him. Despite her efforts, my father died in her arms.
By some miracle, she remembered the man’s license plate number and the police were able to find and arrest him. He was brought to trial, during which he was found guilty and sent to prison. To our dismay, after his very brief sentence, he was going to be released.
We are taught that before we can go into Yom Kippur to seek God’s forgiveness, we must ask for forgiveness from those we have harmed, and also be able to grant forgiveness to those who seek it from us.
So I ask: What if there is someone you feel that you are not able to forgive? How can you approach God, seeking God’s forgiveness for the wrongs you have done, if you haven’t forgiven someone for the wrong done to you? What does it really mean to forgive? Are there some actions that are truly unforgivable? How does one reconcile and go on living when there is a person who has harmed you and your family in the most grievous possible way by causing the death of your father?
These are the questions that I anguished over 19 years ago as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur of 2000/5761 approached, and the man responsible for my father’s death was about to be released from prison.
During the years after my father’s death, starting with the identification of this man by my mother, his capture, trial and imprisonment, I viewed him as a heartless monster. I had wanted him to be imprisoned forever, though I knew that would not be happening. The idea that this man was someday going to be released scared and angered me.
From the time that he was sent to prison, I had wanted to speak with him, to tell him, face to face, about the unbelievable pain that he had caused our family and to describe my father to him. My mother was very concerned and did not want me to have this meeting, a sentiment shared by our victim advocate. They were worried about how the man would react to me and how that might further hurt me, but I insisted, and it was arranged for me to meet with the 35-year-old inmate on his last night in prison.
We met in the prison’s nondescript room where families and inmates could interact. I asked if he knew who I was, and when he said no, I told him. He took a deep breath, looked taken aback and pulled up a folding chair so we were practically knee to knee.
During this incredible encounter, I told him about my father, Sydney Louis Horvitz, z” l, the kind, giving and gentle man, whom he had stolen from us. I described how much my father loved us, his family, and how he always looked out for and cared for others in his community. I wanted him to leave prison with this image of my father’s goodness on his shoulders. I wanted him to know that my father would have hoped that he had learned how to be a good person, who would never harm another person and family. I believed deep in my heart that my father would have wished him the best as he began this new opportunity to turn his life around. Believing that this is what my father would have wanted for him, I was able to share this message with him. I was also able to listen to the man tell me about his family and his concerns for them because of the things he had done. After about a 45-minute conversation, we stood and I reached out, shook his hand and wished him well.
Besides wanting him to have my father as a guiding image of good, I needed something for myself. I needed to transform my image of this man from a monster into a human being in my mind and heart, because how else could I bear his release? That face-to-face encounter with him allowed me to do that, and it was the most profound, healing experience of my life. I left the prison that evening at peace.
It wasn’t until four years later, in 2004, that I understood that as deeply personal and emotional as this encounter had been, it had also been a profoundly spiritual one. This realization occurred as I sat in a shiur (Torah lecture) delivered by Rabbi Zvi Grumet on the topic of “B’tzelem Elokim” — “In God’s Image.” In his shiur, Rabbi Grumet taught that the meaning of being created in God’s image is that we are to understand that every person possesses dignity and self-esteem. He stated that even a criminal who has done a horrific deed reassumes his dignity once he has been punished for his crime. He taught that at that point, we are to consider him as “Harei hu achicha” — “Behold, he is your brother,” and treat him as such.
This was a defining moment for me, one that literally took my breath away. It helped me gain a deeper understanding about what had driven me to meet with the person who caused my father’s death, on his last night in prison. Until that moment in Rabbi Grumet’s shiur, I did not understand that what I did was to actually return us both to being “B’tzelem Elokim,” and that I also then viewed him as “Harei hu achicha.” Every year on my father’s yahrzeit (17 Kislev), as I think about my father and all that I learned from him, I also think of this man and wonder about him, hoping that he is living his life “B’tzelem Elokim,” as I endeavor to do the same.