Forgiveness is hard, and it begins with truth. In order to truly forgive, we must confront the truth of what happened to us; and in order to reconcile with those who have harmed us, we must face this truth together with them. It's a difficult process, but the example of a local advocate on restorative justice--who follows the same path as the prophet Jonah--can inspire us to take the first heavy steps toward forgiveness.
Forgiveness Begins and Ends with Truth
“I want to talk about mercy, justice, and forgiveness and redemption and the value of a human life.”
That’s how Jeanne Bishop opened a talk she gave not far from here a couple of years ago. She continued:
“This matters to me because twenty-five years ago, just a few blocks from here, a teenager from this town, from Winnetka, broke into a townhouse where my sister, Nancy, and her husband, Richard, were living. Nancy was twenty-five years old and three months pregnant with what would have been their first child, my parents’ first grandchild, and my first little niece or nephew.”
I won’t recount here what followed. When Jeanne Bishop tells her story, she speaks with both a sister’s love and an attorney’s precision about two counts of murder and one count of intentional homicide against an unborn child. She tells of the prosecution of sixteen-year-old David Biro and his mandatory sentence of “life without parole” coupled with an additional “discretionary life sentence.”
For some, this would be the conclusion of a story about crime and punishment. But for Bishop, this is only the starting-point on a journey to true forgiveness.
If you had asked Jeanne Bishop two decades ago, she would have told you at that time, yes, she had already forgiven David Biro. As she writes in her recent book, Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015):
From the moment the police told me that Nancy and Richard had been murdered, I sensed in my deepest core that hating the person who did it would affect him not a bit, but it would destroy me. …
So I forgave David Biro.… I left [him] behind, in the dust. God could deal with him. I vowed not even to speak his name; instead, I would go forward and think of Nancy, not him.
Unable to undo the crime, Bishop instead erased the criminal. She discarded her memory of him and refused to let his evil dominate her thoughts. As she told her story again and again, year after year, she stayed true to her vow never to say his name out loud. In time, though, she would come to understand and to embrace a deeper—and truer—form of forgiveness.
Forgiveness. It is the starting-place of the Day of Atonement.
This very night, before the prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, before the plea of Sh’ma Koleinu, before the confessions of Al Cheit Shechatanu … before the heavy work of introspection and restoration and return has even seriously begun, we are told: “All shall be forgiven … for all have gone astray” (Num. 15:26, Mishkan Hanefesh p. 20), as God responds to us: Salachti kidvarecha—“I forgive you, for you ask to be forgiven” (Adapted from Num. 14:20, Mishkan Hanefesh p. 20). Undergirding our hope that we can be reborn on this day of renewal is the assurance that forgiveness is possible, that we can return to the one who loves us despite all our mistakes, the trivial along with the tragic.
This certainty of forgiveness can be difficult to accept. Indeed, sometimes we resist it with every fiber of our being. Jeanne Bishop knows well the force of that resistance. She tells of the strangers and well-wishers alike who have denounced her as deluded or diseased as she seeks to forgive her sister’s killer and to serve as a public advocate for restorative justice. “There are some actions,” they might say, “that are unforgivable. And it desecrates the hope for justice to forgive someone who’s acted so monstrously.”
This reaction is normal, natural even. It’s like a third law of human dynamics – every action triggers a reaction, and every crime deserves a punishment. After all, not once but twice does the Torah instruct us to deduct the value of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20), establishing the basic principle that we need to pay for what we’ve done wrong.
But the sacredness we call God summons us to a purpose higher than simple retribution. Yom Kippur invites us and encourages us and challenges us to transcend our instincts, to rise above the quid-pro-quo of assigning punishment to the guilty. For our tradition also insists that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image, and honoring the sacred within includes imitating and embracing the divine qualities of mercy and compassion.
This may look, at first glance, like setting justice aside, but true forgiveness is not only merciful but also just; it conforms not only to peace but also to truth.
At first, what Bishop called “forgiveness” was actually purposeful forgetfulness. She turned away from the crime and the criminal, burying the truth in the earth. This allowed her to live her life unpossessed of the evil that had befallen her. But Bishop came to understand that full forgiveness requires not turning away from the truth but rather confronting it head-on.
Bishop came to learn this lesson through struggle and hardship, through a process that she shares with one of the most perplexing figures of Yom Kippur, the prophet Jonah. Jonah, like Bishop, required patience and instruction to recognize the powerful connection between forgiveness and truth.
As we read in the book of Jonah each Yom Kippur afternoon, the word of God comes to the prophet and commands, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for the wickedness [of its inhabitants] has come before me” (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh was, at one time, the capital of Assyria and the largest city in the world. Though the Book of Jonah was composed generations after its fall, Nineveh was remembered as the throne of Assyria, the empire that destroyed ten of Israel’s twelve tribes. So this would be a tremendous prize, indeed, if Jonah could succeed in getting its inhabitants to repent.
But the would-be prophet doesn’t even try. He books passage on a ship heading to Tarshish (in Spain!) in an attempt to run as far away from Nineveh as he can. Through a series of localized miracles, God thwarts Jonah’s escape, and the prophet ultimately does cry out against Nineveh. The fullness of his prophecy is but five words: עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!” (Jonah 3:4). And instantly, “the people of Nineveh believed in God” (3:5) and repented from their ways.
Instead of celebrating, though, Jonah mourns this turn of events. Complaining to God, he confesses that he had fled his assignment because he knew that God would save the city – and, we can presume, Jonah did not want to see them spared. Nineveh was responsible for the loss of countless lives, and Jonah wants to see them pay for what they’ve done. Jonah knows that God is merciful and compassionate – but Jonah is not in the mood for mercy.
So it is with bitterness, not awe, that Jonah accuses God of beingאֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, “God gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness” (4:2). These are a few of the so-called “Thirteen Attributes of God,” which we—like Jonah—recite to emphasize God’s mercy. But when we include these words in our High Holiday prayers, our version sounds a little different:
יְיָ יְיָ, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6).
Jonah, who knows this full text from the Torah, intentionally omits the last word. He leaves off the attribute of truth, implicitly reproaching God for being merciful rather than true. For Jonah, mercy and truth cannot coexist, and for this prophet—whose full name is Yonah ben Ammitai, “Jonah, son of Truth”—there could be no more important quality.
In Jonah’s mind, the truth of the matter is that Nineveh is responsible for immeasurable evil, and forgiving the city would require ignoring this essential fact. Jonah accuses God of forgiving without foundation, and he wants no part in it.
And when we consider the case of Jeanne Bishop and the man who murdered her sister’s family, we may feel the same way. It seems impossible to forgive someone who has committed such an unspeakable crime and still honor the truth of what was done. In a choice between truth and forgiveness, it’s easy to agree with Jonah and go with truth. Given that choice, Jeanne Bishop chose forgiveness.
But Bishop came to understand what Jonah never did: that this is, in fact, a false dichotomy, that we need not choose one over the other. Forgiveness is not opposed to truth; rather, full forgiveness requires reckoning directly with the truth. Experts on forgiveness agree that we can’t simply file away or even forget the offenses done to us if we truly wish to forgive. That’s why the first step to forgiveness, according to Sister Martha Alken, is “discovering the injury, naming the pain, and exploring its damage.” As pastor Robert Jeffress explains, “You cannot forgive a person without first acknowledging that they’ve wronged you.” So long as Bishop wanted to live with the crime in her past, she would never be able to fully forgive. Only in facing that reality, and eventually doing so alongside the perpetrator himself, could complete forgiveness emerge.
It should be clear that facing the truth is not a one-way street to be traveled alone by the one who was wronged. In fact, quite the opposite. From a Jewish perspective, complete forgiveness can only come after the offender has undergone teshuvah, repentance, the first step of which is acknowledging and taking responsibility for the harm one has done.
This, I believe, is what Jonah doesn’t understand about truth. He knows that God will forgive the people of Nineveh, but he overlooks the most critical step in that forgiveness: the repentance of the city’s inhabitants. He forgets that the people believed in God, that the king decreed a nationwide fast, that God first “saw what they did, that they turned from their ways” (3:10) and only then did God forgive the people. Jonah assumed that God would forgive Nineveh no matter what, but that’s not at all true. God’s forgiveness is not based on grace alone; it comes after a genuine and sincere repentance on the part of the sinners.
That’s what Jeanne Bishop discovered. She took the first courageous step in reaching out to David Biro in prison, and she was awash with relief when he replied to her letter with one of his own, a letter written by hand and infused with kindness and remorse. He expressed the anguish he’d come to feel over his crime and shared the lessons he’d learned since he’d been imprisoned as a high-schooler. “I don’t know how much my apology means to you at this point,” he wrote, “…but this is all I have to give.” They agreed to meet and have worked hard—very, very hard—at building a relationship out of the repentance and forgiveness that emerged from the truth of their terrible circumstances.
Here’s how Bishop describes the first steps of this part of her journey:
I sensed that [David’s] remorse was real. … What he seemed to want, above all else, was some sort of understanding—for me to know who he was—and for some kind of connection, for us to have a relationship, human to human. …
What we had to say to each other was hard. … It would take time, untangling those stories…
These were the first fumbling birth pangs of reconciliation. Our reconciliation was not pretty, or perfect. Nor did I expect it to be. I expected it to be as messy as the two of us were.
Truth is hard, and truth is holy. And as Bishop and Biro reconciled, they transformed the truth that both of them shared. The past never changed, and the facts of the matter stayed the same – but the page turned and the story went on and the truth continued to grow and evolve.
The ultimate goal of such a journey of human discovery is a right and righteous life for all who would find peace with one another. A peace that Biro and Bishop sought together.
A verse from the Psalms (85:11) can summarize this complicated journey of truth and repentance, forgiveness and peace.
חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ; צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ.
One possible translation, used again and again in our tradition, is: Kindness and Truth fought together, Justice and Peace combated each other. This is the reading that Jonah might have suggested at first: Doing kindness dishonors the truth, and making peace perverts our sense of justice. This is the story we tell when we are not ready to forgive or when repentance has not occurred; this is the story of mercy and fairness at odds with one another and where forgiveness comes only if we’re willing to give something up.
But there’s another translation which is actually a plainer reading of the words: Kindness and Truth meet together; Justice and Peace kiss one another. Here, mercy and truth go hand-in-hand, and peace and justice coexist. Indeed, this reading flows directly into the next verse (85:12)--Let Truth spring up from the ground, and Justice will gaze down from the heavens. As the renowned commentator, Rashi, explains (ad loc.): “Once we are able to speak the truth, only then can kindness settle among us.”
This is not a simple journey, and it is not, precisely, a happy one. But it is holy, a sacred path toward healing. And it is, I believe, where Jonah, Son of Truth is destined to be. Jonah, whose name means “dove,” the ancient symbol of peace, will come to learn—alongside each of us—that the path to reconciliation and peace, to forgiveness and ultimately to comfort, begins with an honest reckoning with the truth.
יְיָ יְיָ, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן ... וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת.
May each of us find in ourselves these attributes established by God. May we dedicate this Yom Kippur to forgiveness and peace alike, to justice and mercy together, and ultimately, to chesed ve-emet, to kindness as well as to truth.
G’mar chatimah tovah, may we be sealed for blessing in the book of life.
 “Mercy, justice & forgiveness | Jeanne Bishop | TEDxWinnetkaWomen.” Published July 9, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxOV0Gs7t7U.
 p. 45-46.
 It may be of interest that Dena Weiss has explored purposeful forgetfulness precisely as a mode of forgiveness. See here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/hiding-or-plain-sight.
 According to II Kings 14:25, a prophet named Jonah son of Amitai preached during the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 786-746 BCE) in the northern Kingdom of Israel. During this time, Assyria was not yet a major threat to Israel. The first invasion of Assyria against Israel is during the reign of Menachem (c. 752-742 BCE), the great-grandson of King Jeroboam II. This was conducted by Pul = Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BCE), the great-grandfather of Sennacherib. Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) made Nineveh the capital of Assyria, and it grew to become the largest city in the world.
The figure named Jonah in II Kings could not be same as the Book of Jonah since Nineveh was not large or menacing enough to evoke this kind of prophecy. Moreover, the language of the text, as reported by Uriel Simon in his JPS Commentary, makes the Book of Jonah “unmistakably” from the Second Temple period, an era that followed the conquest of not only Assyria but Babylonia as well. Thus, even if the name of the prophet is drawn from II Kings, the author of the Book of Jonah was not contemporary to that purportedly historical figure. As such, it is likely that the author is placing the tale in a mythical setting as if “once upon a time.”
 Alken, Martha. The Healing Power of Forgiving. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997. p. 113.
 Jeffress, Robert. When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2000. p. 171.
 Change of Heart p. 106.
 Ibid. 123-124.
 See as the primary example Genesis Rabbah 8:5.
 שיהיו ישראל דוברי אמת ומן השמים יפגוש בהם החסד
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”