Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Would Joseph's brothers have asked for forgiveness if they were not about to starve to death?
-- R., Kenosha, Wis.
Gandhi once famously remarked, "To a starving man, God is bread." His point is that our spiritual horizons are often defined by our physical circumstances. That may have been true of Joseph's brothers, but it's definitely true for all of us after the Boston Marathon bombings.
To me, now, God is safety for my family and friends and nation.
However, there is a pressing theological question that links the story of Joseph to the story of the bombings. Like Joseph's brothers, the Boston bombers did not repent of their deeds. Joseph's brothers could not say a word to him when he revealed himself to them (Genesis 45:3), and later, after the death of their father, Jacob, when they feared Joseph's retribution for selling him into slavery, they made up a story about how Jacob had asked them to tell Joseph to forgive them (Genesis 50:15-21). This was hardly a full-hearted apology on their part, but Joseph forgave them, anyway.
The Joseph-like question for us now is, should we forgive the surviving accused bomber?
His brother died in an unrepentant, suicidal shootout, so forgiving him is moot. As for the surviving brother, we don't yet know if he is repentant, but his behavior up until his capture doesn't argue for contrition.
Christian readers often press me in emails, arguing in an abstract, theoretical way that forgiveness is an absolute commandment from God. I don't hear that command.
I believe forgiveness must be sought before it can be granted, but after Boston, that question is certainly not theoretical any longer.
I don't feel one shred of compassion for that murderer and maimer of children and adults. I don't believe that justice is revenge. I don't hear God calling me to forgive a young man who had other bombs ready to kill other 8-year-old boys.
It's not only that I don't want to forgive him. I also truly don't understand what it would mean to forgive him. But as always, I could be wrong, or I could be right but excessively severe.
Do you believe we should forgive him now? What does it mean to you to forgive the Boston terrorist?
Do you think we go to heaven when we die, or are we going to be risen after Jesus comes back?
-- L., via email
The teachings of Judaism and Christianity both hold to the belief that there are two stages of our soul's journey after the death of our bodies. The first stage is a provisional and temporary life for our souls with God after we die. This happens after God and our guardian angels help us to review our life and to understand why we failed and how we succeeded in serving God and serving each other and ourselves.
I also believe that those who are radically evil will not endure this spiritual accounting and that whatever hell is, those frozen souls will know it. Justice demands that the scales of judgment be set right in heaven if they are unbalanced here on earth.
For the vast majority of good souls, death begins a period of time lived in the glorious presence of a loving God. That is what we believe. That is what I trust and hope. However, I do understand and respect those who believe that death is truly the end of us, and heaven nothing but a comforting illusion. In time, we will all know the truth.
The second stage of traditional religious teachings about life after death is the Messianic Age, when the world we live in and the balance between good and evil in our world will be totally transformed. Both Judaism and Christianity believe that the end of days will also include a resurrection of the dead at the time of the coming (or second coming) of the Messiah.
I like this duality of hope. Our lives have meaning both personally and socially. Our destiny is both individual and collective. I live in the hope that the crushing evil and oppression of poverty and war that stain our world will not be an ultimate and eternal stain. Isaiah's vision (11:6) that in those days "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" refers to people as well as wolves and leopards.
Until that time, our task is to work toward the day when all people will be one and when God's name will be one. I don't know with scientific certainty that any of this is true, but I could not live my life without the sustaining hope that these beliefs provide for my temporarily embodied life.