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August 27, 2009 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Releasing the Lockerbie bomber is a perversion of morality.

It's a sickness that may pose an even more serious threat than swine flu.

It's highly contagious and seems to be afflicting more and more people.

It still doesn't have an official name, but I call it compassionitis and the best way to illustrate it is by way of example.

Only one man was ever convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. 243 passengers and 16 crew members were brutally killed by a bomb purposely placed on a transatlantic flight from London to New York. In 2001, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted of involvement in the bombing and sentenced to life imprisonment. For families of the victims, incarceration of the perpetrator conveyed the message that although their loved ones could never be brought back to life the legal system at the very least attempted to express the outrage of civilized mankind at a heinous act that warranted uncompromising condemnation.

On 20 August the Scottish government decided to release the convicted killer. Not because there was any new evidence exonerating the prisoner. Not because the murderer manifested overwhelming remorse at his unconscionable deed. No, it was because the authorities decided that since Megrahi was sick and might soon die a natural death, they would grant him his freedom as a sign of compassion. After all, who could possibly argue with giving expression to a trait as noble and seemingly unquestionably righteous as compassion?

What a wonderful thing, goes this misguided way of thinking, to show kindness to the wicked in order to demonstrate our supposedly moral sensitivity. All the while forgetting the pain and grief we inflict on the family members of those who perished, now forced to witness the murderer of their loved ones welcomed home as a hero, negating whatever message of justice was supposedly delivered by the initial verdict.

Forgiveness is not an entitlement. It needs to be earned.

It is foolish to believe that compassion is a divinely sanctioned response to evil. The day after the Columbine high school massacre, there were similarly "compassionates" announcing that they forgave the killers and asking others to join them. A short while after the Oklahoma bombing, there, too, were "compassionate souls" who put out a call to forgive Timothy McVeigh. On September 12, 2001 numerous American campuses witnessed the spectacle of "sensitive students" who expressed a desire to understand "the motivations" of terrorists and pleaded for forgiveness for those responsible for the horrific events of the previous day.

Just when we might have thought that the movie industry has already examined the Holocaust from every possible angle, we now learn of a new film with the remarkable title, "Forgiving Dr. Mengele." To emphasize the relevance of the title for contemporary events the producers go out of their way to demonstrate the equivalence of their theme with the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Those whose credo is to send unprovoked missiles into Sderot or blow up Israeli civilians in cafés and restaurants it seems deserve the same unfailing understanding as the perpetrators of genocide!

Nazis, sadistic medical experimenters, suicide bombers, and terrorists all seem to have found a soft spot in the hearts of those who are convinced a moral claim of compassion has no limits. Yet the Torah makes clear that even an infinitely kind and loving God excludes them from His mercy.

To speak of forgiveness as if it were the automatic entitlement of every criminal, no matter whether remorseful or repentant, is to pervert a noble sentiment into carte blanche for mayhem and chaos. We might as well open the doors of every jail and release all the thieves, rapists and murderers. And then watch with horror as our act of compassion would be followed by the cries of the victims of our folly.

Forgiveness indeed plays a central role in Judaism. The prophet Isaiah long ago put it in simple, clear words: "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him and He will abundantly pardon" (55:7). Forgiveness is willing to overlook the sins of the past for the promise of an altered future. It is ready to pardon wrong for the price of remorse, regret and a committed desire for a new beginning. But God's forgiveness is unwilling to condone vicious crimes by simply accepting them. To forgive such a person isn't kindness; it is cruelty to all those who will be hurt by the evil that implicitly seems to be condoned.

Because God loves us, He expects us to live up to our potential.

That is why God holds people responsible. He criticizes and condemns those who commit crimes. Adam and Eve sinned, and they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Cain sinned and he was condemned to become a wanderer over the face of the earth. The generation of Noah sinned and a flood destroyed them. The builders of the Tower of Babel sinned and their speech was turned into babble. In one story after another, from the Five Books of Moses through the works of the prophets, we read of accountability, of divine consequences working hand-in-hand with just rewards.

This is one of the most important messages of the High Holy days that we will soon be celebrating. Yes, of course God loves us. And precisely because He loves us, God expects us to live up to our potential. Created in His image, we have the ability to live up to the obligations imposed upon us. We will be judged for our actions because God knows that if He were to show us too much undeserved compassion we would never become capable of growing to moral maturity. So on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will repent, confess our sins, and pledge to be better Jews and better human beings in the year ahead.

And the way God judges us is hopefully the way we will judge sinners -- forgiving those who are truly repentant but continuing to hold responsible those who have no right to our compassion.


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