by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
I don’t know whether you ever noticed, but teshuvah, the whole cycle of repentance and forgiveness, plays no part in the early dramas of humankind. It doesn’t in the story of Adam and Eve. As for Cain, God mitigates his punishment but he doesn’t forgive him for his crime. There is no call to repentance to the generation of the Flood, or the builders of Babel, or the people of Sodom and the cities of the plain.
The first time God forgives is after the sin of the golden calf. He hears Moses prayer and agrees. “Although this is a stiff-necked people,” he said, “forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” And God did. Moses pleaded again after the sin of the spies: “Forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” And God replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.”
Why the change? Why does God forgive in the book of Exodus but not in the book of Genesis? The answer, I think, is extraordinary and it made a huge difference to me when I realised it.
The first recorded instance of forgiveness in all of literature is the moment when Joseph, by then viceroy of Egypt, revealed his identity to his brothers, who had long before sold him as a slave. He forgives them. He says, it wasn’t you, it was God. He said: “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” And it wasn’t only then that Joseph forgave them. After their father Jacob had died, the brothers were anxious that now Joseph would take revenge. Once again Joseph forgave. And on that note the book of Genesis ends.
God did not forgive human beings until human beings learned to forgive. It took Joseph to bring forgiveness into the world. That is what God was waiting for. Had God forgiven first, He would have made the human situation worse, not better. People would have said, ‘Why shouldn’t I harm others? After all, God forgives.’ We have to forgive others before God can forgive us.
So, before Yom Kippur, take time to apologise to others you may have offended. Forgive others who have offended you. Resentment is a heavy load to bear. Let go of it and you will travel more lightly. Now is the time to heal the wounds of the past. Then you will have more energy for the future.