Forgiveness and forgetfulness
By: Rabb Dr David Fox
The elderly stranger sat at the far end of the table after my Talmud class. I welcomed him.
“It’s too far,” he replied, sneering at me with a disdainful look in his eyes.
“Too far?” I echoed, waiting for him to elaborate.
“It’s too far. It’s too far for me,” he said in a mocking voice, imitating someone.
I remained quiet, meeting his glare with as much warmth as I could, caught off guard by this older man’s harshness. I had no clue about what to say or how to say it. What was too far? Who had told him that, and under what circumstances?
“I know you. Don’t worry. I know exactly who you are,” he taunted me.
I waited, remaining quiet.
“You were the rabbi in Centralburg*,” he said. “My wife was in the hospital and I was told to call you. I asked you to visit her and you refused. You said it was too far. ‘It’s too far’,” he said mockingly once again. This man was angry and hurting. He described how his wife had been given a grave diagnosis, hospitalised in a remote city to see a specialist. He had a business to tend to and couldn’t travel there. He had been told to call the rabbi in that city to visit and assure that her needs were managed.
“But you would not help. You refused. ‘It’s too far’, you claimed. You would not help her. I knew that one day I would meet up with you and tell you how I felt then and how I feel about you now.”
I nodded, displaying the sadness and compassion which I felt for this troubled man. I had no idea if his wife had survived. I opted not to ask him.
“You have a lot of hurt inside of you. Do you know how long ago that happened?” I asked.
“It does not matter how many years it has been. Don’t try to get out of it by telling me I should forgive you. Yes, it is more than ten years ago, but that does not make me less angry. I still won’t forgive you. ‘It’s too far! It’s too far!” he repeated, mimicking my voice.
“Sir, I know that you are hurt and feel resentment. But I must tell you: what you are describing does not trigger any memory in me. That’s not something I would have said under the frightening circumstances you went through.”
“Oh, so you have forgotten it!? That makes me more angry at you. You have no sympathy. You did not have it then and you lack it now.”
“I have not forgotten. I do not remember the call you describe.”
“Well, rabbi, let me remind you. The year was 19**. You were the rabbi of the city of Centralburg. I got your name from my rabbi and called. You refused to go. ‘It’s too far. It’s too far.’
I closed my eyes and thought back. Where had I been during that time? What would have gotten into me that I would refuse to visit an ailing person, and snub her anxious husband? My memory crystallised. I began to remember such a call.
I had been the rabbi of the town of Twin Hill* during those years, not Centralburg, which was very far away. Somehow, someone had mixed me up with the rabbi of Centralburg and had given him my number. I did recall now getting his call, and upon learning where his wife was hospitalised, I had advised him that he should call Rabbi Little* there, the rabbi in Centralburg. Centralburg was many hours away from my town and I had no resources there. I remember him asking if I could just go there myself so that he wouldn’t have to make any more calls, and indeed, after commiserating with him, I had tried to explain that Centralburg was in a different part of the state, miles and miles away, and that I was unable to travel there in one day.
“But why can’t you just go today?” he had asked me back then.
“I cannot travel that distance at this moment. Rabbi Little lives there and is a good man. I can call him for you, but you must give him the details of where your wife is and what she needs. I am quite sure that he will help, just as I try to take care of people here in Twin Hill.”
“So you won’t help? You won’t go? I need you to go there today,” he insisted.
“I am not able to drive to Centralburg today. It is much too far to travel in one day. But I am willing to make a connection for you with the rabbi there. Give me your number and I will work on it immediately.”
But he had hung up.
And years later, he had found me and was confronting me. Should I tell him the real story, refreshing his memory that he had called me in error? Should I reason with him that it was time to let go of his anger over a misunderstanding? Should I assert that he had no right to hold a grudge based on a mistaken identity? Would anything I might say make a difference with his embedded perceptions of what had happened and why he could not forgive “me”?
I opted to spare him my attempts to correct his assumptions about me. I apologised for my role in his having felt rejected by me. He agreed to accept my apology.
“By the way, were you able to get a rabbi to help out with your wife back then?” I inquired.
“No, it wasn’t necessary. She was discharged that day. The doctor had made a mistake in her diagnosis. She was fine. She still is,” he added as he shuffled off.
*Place and person names, as well as dates are fictitious.