In this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, Moses discusses impartial justice. For example, don’t play favourites in judicial proceedings, and don’t take bribes. In one of the warnings, the Torah says: ‘don’t recognize faces’, an interesting phrase with a latitude of meaning.
Within the context of a court proceeding, not recognizing faces is clearly saying not to favour someone you know. In other words, look only at the issue and not the person standing there. But, as we are in the month of Elul, a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the layered meaning of this phrase becomes relevant. In Elul, we are to assess our past actions, then ask and offer forgiveness to those we have wronged or who have wronged us. The problem is that when we are hurt by someone, we don’t only think of this time, we think of all times in our past when we felt wronged by that person. It’s difficult to think of our pain without thinking of a history of pain.
Given that we accumulate these hurt feelings, it’s now hard to forgive someone without being cynical and thinking it will happen again because of who they are. Now our forgiveness includes our judgments.
The Torah challenges us to approach these moments without ‘recognizing faces’. The focus shifts to the hurt and the attempt to validate and acknowledge what was done through a sincere apology. We are all creatures of habit, and we will continue to hurt others as a natural course of being human. The question is not whether we will do it again –of course we will. The question is whether other people are building biographies of pain around us that activate when they see us. The greater task is to forgive without recognizing faces.
Apologies and forgiveness stand together in a moment in time. The Talmud tells us that true forgiveness means I have let it go, I will not mention it again nor think of it. True forgiveness is a slate wiped clean ready to be written on again. It’s a level few of us achieve, but every year we are invited to do it a bit better than we did before.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.