For Jews, forgiveness was never meant to be easy

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On Dec. 1, 1997, Michael Carneal, 14, fired a semi-automatic pistol into a group of students holding a prayer meeting at Chase High School in West Paducah, Ky. He killed three girls.

Two days later, a handwritten sign appeared outside the school. "We forgive you, Mike," it said.

"Can you forgive a murderer?" Zack, my 14-year-old son, asked after the killings.

"Not really. Not in Judaism," I answered.

I briefly explained the Jewish concept of forgiveness, that the person who has erred or has committed the crime must honestly and directly seek forgiveness from the person he or she has harmed.

Zack understood immediately. "But those people are dead," he said.

"Exactly," I responded.

In the United States, however, unsolicited forgiveness has become fashionable. We bestow it swiftly, superficially and self-servingly on killers and con men, ex-spouses and ex-bosses, parents and children. For Americans, forgiveness has become a quick-fix cleansing ritual, promising to rid us of pent-up rage and resentments.

And as we forgive freely, so we transgress freely. After all, Erich Segal's book "Love Story" taught us that love means never having to say you're sorry.

But Judaism has taught us otherwise. It has taught us that there are moral imperatives and consequences to all our actions.

As we approach the Ten Days of Repentance or tshuvah, the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we come face to face with the purposeful Jewish concept of forgiveness, a psychologically demanding and, ultimately, spiritually fulfilling obligation.

Tshuvah, literally, means "returning." It signifies a returning to God, a returning to upright and ethical behavior. We want to begin the New Year with a clean slate; we want to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Here, simply, are the Jewish laws regarding tshuvah:

*On Yom Kippur, God forgives transgressions only between a person and God. Transgressions committed against other persons can be forgiven only after we have sought forgiveness from those we have harmed or hurt. For a transgression against another person, we must confront that person prior to Yom Kippur and directly and sincerely ask for his or her forgiveness. We must also offer to make amends or restitution.

*We know we have truly repented only when we find ourselves facing a familiar temptation and we choose not to transgress.

*It is a duty to grant forgiveness to anyone who genuinely seeks it from us.

Judaism is a religion of personal responsibility. If we have transgressed, we cannot hide behind excuses, vague uses of passive verbs (i.e., if any harm was done) or extenuating circumstances. After all, the stakes are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

As Jews, we are born with both good and bad tendencies. We are born with free will. Ideally, through our mistakes, we learn to make good choices and to take responsibility for our actions.

As the High Holy Days approach, my husband, Larry, and I talk about tshuvah with our sons. We begin by asking questions.

How has your year been? Did you hurt anyone's feelings? Did you break anyone's toys? Did you hit anyone? Were you always polite to your teachers?

"I was mean to Jordan, but he deserved it," said 7-year-old Danny.

"When I was 3, I broke Gabe's Lego ship," said 9-year-old Jeremy.

Larry and I talk about individual responsibility. We also talk about concentrating on the current year.

To help my children better understand the process of reflection, repentance and reconciliation, I tell them about one of my memorable childhood transgressions.

As a preteen in Davenport, Iowa, my girlfriend and I spent the afternoon shopping downtown. For reasons that now completely elude me, we each stole several lipsticks and some makeup from the local five-and-dime.

When I came home, my mother discovered the stolen goods, eliciting tears and an immediate confession. She drove me back downtown where I asked to see the store manager. Embarrassed, apprehensive and contrite, I returned the items to him, apologized and offered to pay.

I have not shoplifted since.

"Really? You really did that?" Gabe, 11, asked incredulously.

"Don't tell anyone," Danny said. As the youngest of four, he's familiar with the concept of guilt by association.

I tell Danny that people are not supposed to remind you about sins for which you've already atoned. It's a paraphrase of Leviticus 25:14: "Ye shall not wrong one another."

How much easier it would be to merely perform Kapparot, a series of prayers that allow us to symbolically rid ourselves of sins by swinging a rooster or hen above our heads three times and saying, "This is my substitute, this is my exchange, this is my atonement. This fowl will go to death, and I will enter upon a good and long life."

And how much easier it would be to avoid discussions of wrongs, to not ask forgiveness of people we have injured, to not make our children return to the store where they have stolen something. How much easier it would be to abdicate personal responsibility and to espouse universal forgiveness.

Instead, as Jews, we stand in judgment on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed. In the days between, we concentrate on the serious task of tshuvah.

L'shanah tovah tikatevu.

May you be inscribed for a good year.