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Blaze Bernstein

by Jeanne Pepper

SEPTEMBER 6, 2018 – Approaching Rosh Hashanah this year, I should think about forgiving all who have wronged me this year and forgive them, clear my plate of all ill feelings and conflict, and embrace the opportunity to begin a new year with a bright outlook and hope.

This year, I am full of questions and sadness. I struggle with the idea of forgiveness. It makes sense. I have been wronged so grievously that I question my very existence and what my family did to deserve such cruelty. Intellectually, I know that the world doesn’t work that way – we didn’t deserve this. My son didn’t deserve to die at 19 years of age. Yet, when a tragedy of this magnitude befalls you and at the hands of another person, it begs the question of whether forgiveness would serve any purpose.

My 19-year-old son Blaze Bernstein was murdered this year simply because of who he was. He had done nothing wrong. Blaze was one of the brightest parts of my life and my hope for the future. The man who murdered him claims now that having a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome is a defense to this heinous crime; admitting that he did this but not taking responsibility for the decision he made to end Blaze’s life.

From the moment of confirmation that my son was dead, I reached deep inside myself trying to figure out what this meant. Did this mean I was doomed to a live a life full of hatred for the man who committed this crime? Or in a courtroom demanding justice and advocating that this man should be given a punishment worthy of this crime? Would I spend every waking hour dreaming of all the hideous things I could do to him to exact revenge? The answer is a solid “NO!”

I knew from that moment that inside of me was a well of love and gratitude for the beautiful life I had been given. I drew from that well and chose at that time to affirm what I truly believe: that life is too precious to spend filling my soul with the ugliness of hate and the bitterness of revenge. I would not turn my happy life and that of my family’s into a miserable existence – I would not let hate win. I would not let this murderer and his associates turn me into one of them – a hater. I could not do that. It would be an insult to God who gave me so many gifts and it would destroy my ability to see goodness in the world. It would injure me beyond repair. I would not waste my life’s purpose on that selfishness.

I know that people are good. I know that the world is beautiful. It is those truths that are the foundation of my life’s purpose. It is those beliefs that in the darkest night of my soul brought me to reason that the only way to combat this atrocity was to fight hate with love, hope, and optimism.

Thus began the #Blazeitforward movement and recognition by thousands of people around the world that kindness and good deeds, tolerance and understanding were the way to fix this. It wouldn’t bring my son back. It would keep his spirit alive.

I cannot begin to consider forgiveness of the murderer at this time. It would serve no purpose for me. The question of forgiveness becomes only a philosophical point for me now. It is one thing to forgive a relative for not remembering your birthday; it’s quite another to forgive a stranger for killing your child. The act of forgiveness should heal the soul and allow the transgressor another chance. It should be liberating. It should free me from this nightmare of unhappiness. Yet I know at this time it would do none of those things. It would be a meaningless forgiveness of an unrepentant man.

I have raged against God and cried and cried thinking that God had abandoned me. I felt like the universe didn’t love us anymore. We had been given such a beautiful life and it was taken away from us in a moment. God was the true recipient of my anger. If only I could forgive God for this – and I knew I could – I just had to find a way back.

Sometimes we cannot forgive, and we cannot forget, yet we can accept that with one hand God gives and with the other hand God takes. That is the way of the world. I can accept that. There is some balance in the universe, some pattern. We cannot see or hope to ever understand the way God works, and while this was not meant to happen to Blaze, I can accept that people are born, and they must die. Eventually. It is the natural order. What I find hard to accept is that God created villains like this and lets them harm good people. That is what I find hard to forgive.

My heart is broken for my son and the loss of his beautiful life. There is no more room in my heart for hate or bitterness or revenge. It was my choice and I made it. I will use my heart for love only. I will teach others to do the same. That is my only revenge. We have made that our life mission to keep his beautiful spirit alive by encouraging all around us to continue his life’s purpose and to make this world even better than he ever could have alone. To repair this broken world through tikun olam (repair the world).

As far as forgiveness goes, I struggle to forgive God. To let go of my rage and sadness at the unfairness of this act and my loss. I don’t think God wanted Blaze to die so young and in such a horrible way. I know that wasn’t “the plan.” I know that in a world where you can be anything, it’s our choice to be kind. It’s our choice to be evil. We have free will. God just watched and now God cries with me. We have both suffered a tremendous loss.

It is easier to forgive someone who hurt you when they suffer with you. Forgiveness is possible, you just must know who to forgive and what to forgive. I forgive God for creating a world where we have free will to murder and hate. It is that same free will that allows me now to choose goodness, happiness, and hope for a better future.

Jeanne Pepper created the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund, which will fund organizations and charities that Blaze Bernstein would have liked to support. For more information, visit blazebernstein.org/memorial-fund.

Editor’s note: A former high school classmate of Blaze Bernstein is facing murder charges after allegedly killing Blaze Bernstein, in Lake Forest, Calif., last January. The district attorney has classified the case as a hate crime because Blaze was gay.

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