I got an image earlier of a wadi (a valley, ravine or other potential channel for water), most often heard in the context of Three hikers were washed away in a flash flood in the wadi.
That’s how I respond to this week’s reading. Life’s going along in its fashion, things more or less in their place. Changes ongoing but not dramatic, maybe even subtle. Life in motion and at rest, at the same time. The world feels natural and manageable.
Then suddenly Whoosh. A Big Shift. An idea or feeling that’s so hard to wrestle with that you’re washed away in its complexity.
Torah offers a strong narrative about personal development, told through stories and history. We’re also given a gazillion mitzvot (rules about daily life). They’re a good template for a life of goodness and justice. But I care a lot more about the big questions, the kind that sweep over you like the rushing water, and are as difficult to tame.
This week’s perhaps the deepest: to forgive or not. The last line is You shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget
Are we supposed to forget or to remember? To remember, but make everyone else forgets? To remember forever so the violence that Amalek signifies never happens again? To be hyper-vigilant? How will that help us make peace?
I’m framing the question as: Do we remember and never forgive? Or can we forgive, even if we do not forget?
Are there harms so egregious they cannot be forgiven? What happens to us if we do not? if we allow the harm that has been done to define us? Who do we become? And what happens to the collective that we share?
The 20th century alone has names and places that make our understanding of evil simply stop cold. So do equally painful stories of abuse in the lives of friends and loved ones. Much as we might try, we can’t assuage their horror and the pain.
The desire to strike back is great, with a flood of emotions just as intense and formidable as the waters rushing through the wadi. Forget forgiveness; we want revenge. We want to have the stories heard, and to have evildoers punished. Neil Gaimon’s new graphic short story The Truth Lives in a Cave in the Black Mountains is a tough microcosm of these emotions. I understand it, but it’s sad.
My own hurts are small in comparison, and I don’t have any moral authority to say Forgiveness makes this world a better place, so please find a path to it. But I’d like to think that we’re hardwired for kindness as well as justice, and that we can learn to be good to one another in ways that will break the cycles of anger and violence. That we can remember the harm not to stoke the fires of revenge, but to remind us to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
It shouldn’t be an all or nothing world. If we can inch our way towards forgiveness, perhaps we’ll be able to make more peace.