In My Own Words:Statute of limitations and the High Holidays

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A 19-year-old Jewish college student dropped out of a state house race after admitting to harassing female students when he was in middle school. A non-Jewish doctor was fired from two training programs and her medical training certificate was revoked because of antisemitic material she posted on social media between 2010-13. Both individuals have apologized for their actions. I’m not excusing their behaviors because they should have known better. My query is about their apologies. During the High Holiday season, we are asking to not only seek forgiveness for our sins, but to forgive those who have sinned again us. So, the questions become this: Should they be forgiven? Should he be able to run for public office and should she be allowed to continue her medical training? What I’m debating is whether there should be a statute of limitation on punishment for people’s actions – that is, if they truly understand they have done wrong. 

A TV police drama I watched recently brought up a similar issue and, even though the event featured was fictional, it resonated with my search for an answer. A policeman was one member of the group that shot an innocent man shortly after 9/11 when fear of terrorists ran high. The others resigned from the force, but he kept his head down, admitted his wrongdoing and, years later, wanted to be promoted to sergeant. The final result was something that might only happen on a TV show: The police commissioner arranged for him to take a position in a police force outside of New York City. What matters here is the question the policeman asked: Was his life always going to be judged by his one mistake? On the one hand, I felt for him: What happened was not premeditated murder and the experience left him scarred. Should he not be able to move forward without that act shadowing his every move? On the other hand, the victim’s family was changed forever. They can’t ignore what happened because the pain will remain forever. Is there a fair outcome? Not really; what occurred that day may haunt all of them forever. 

Forgiveness may be easier when dealing with friends and family. There we can do something that might be called “forgive, but not forget.” I may be able to forgive someone for what they’ve done to me, but their betrayal of my trust might mean that I may not want them in my life anymore. That is my choice. Then again, there are some people I could not imagine my life without, and I think I would stand by them even if they did something I think is wrong. That doesn’t mean I would excuse their behavior/action, but I know enough about them as a person to understand that one action doesn’t define their whole life. And I know they have stood by me when I’ve floundered. That connection is too strong and too important to break. Yet, what if they were someone to whom I was not close or whose action was too horrific? I can’t even contemplate that. 

Once again, I have more questions than I do answers because each person needs to be judged on the merits of their particular case. The slate cannot automatically be wiped clean for everyone: Judaism demands true repentance. What does that mean? True repentance is said to occur when someone is given the opportunity to perform the same sin, but does not. It demands there be action (or lack of action) involved, not just feeling. But should that person be allowed to become a doctor or run for public office? How many years does the person need to wait before their sin is erased? One person may offer complete forgiveness, while another will say they can never be trusted again.

No one truly knows what is occurring in another person’s mind – whether or not repentance is real. There is one clue as to how we should behave. On Yom Kippur eve, we publicly declare that we are granted permission to pray with sinners. And we say the confessional in the plural form because we have all sinned – no one is perfect. That doesn’t necessarily mean the slate is wiped completely clean. But we would do well to forgive ourselves and those who are truly repentant for the sins we have all committed.