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The Politics Of Forgiveness

The Politics Of Forgiveness

It’s an all-out political season, and the High Holidays are here, which made me think a bit about grudges.

Politicians are known for them. Forget strange bedfellows; while reluctant alliances are sometimes forged, more often than not candidates and elected officials have long memories and sharp claws for those who have done them wrong, no matter how much time has passed. I recently heard Chuck Schumer say in a speech that he relies on his wife, Iris, to remember who has done him wrong, and that she is often up to the task. David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani (the master of spite) clearly loathed each other for years after they faced off on the ballot, as did Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo.

After a heated debate on Tuesday, Reshma Saujani, who is challenging Rep. Carolyn Maloney for her East Side seat in Tuesday’s primary, told reporters she might not even vote in the general election if Maloney gets the Democratic nomination. (She later backtracked through a spokesperson.)

In 20 years of covering politics I’ve seen plenty of snubs, jabs and retaliatory endorsements of opponents all based on grudges. And I’ve been on the receiving end of a grudge or two myself.

Are these folks petty or childish, or just realistic in a world where it’s every person for his or herself? Who knows, but clearly politics is not the place for soft egos and weak stomachs. And while most of us won’t find ourselves forced to sit on a dais next to someone who trashed our record or questioned our ethics, we often face people in life who have wronged us, have no regrets and would likely do it over again in a flash if they had the chance. How do we reconcile this with the mandate to forgive during the High Holidays?

I’m mad at a bunch of people these days. They include thoughtless relatives, a nasty neighbor a deceitful friend and others. I try to rise above and not hold grudges and to be a good person. But most rabbis will tell you that the forgiveness process, which starts with Rosh HaShanah and the 10 Days of Repentance and ends on Yom Kippur, is by necessity a two-sided process. Unilaterally forgiving people doesn’t accomplish much if it doesn’t lead to real peace and transition between the parties.

Last year, in a sermon before the holidays, the rabbi at one of the shuls I attend said something that really resonated: "If you refuse to forgive someone, then maybe you won’t be forgiven." It reminded me that we forgive not only out of magnanimity but out of self interest as well. And so I sent a conciliatory e-mail to a relative with whom I had a dispute over a relatively trivial matter, and heard back from him then, but not since. The bad feelings continue because there is no closure. We both think we were right and always will.

Part of the beauty of our tradition is that there is a time and place for everything, and so there is at least one time of the year to focus on these matters. We take stock of which relationships can be improved and saved, and sadly, which are permanently ruined. If peace through resolution can’t be achieved, there is at least the inner peace of having tried. As it says in Ethics of Our Fathers, "It is not required that you complete the task, but you are not free to withdraw from it," which I take to mean the attempt.

If I have written anything in the past, on this blog or elsewhere, that caused offense or unease, let me take this opportunity to seek your forgiveness. And if you ever run for political office, let’s start from scratch.

Shanah Tovah.

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