Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Judaism is very clear about the importance of forgiveness between man and his fellow man, especially during the Ten days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Maimonides (Rambam) writes in his Laws of Repentance: “Teshuva and Yom Kippur only atone for sins committed against God. Sins committed against another person are absolved only after the transgressor gives the victim what is due him and is then accepted by him.”
Thus it is upon each person to ask forgiveness from those people whom they feel they have wronged.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes, “Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognize that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. Judaism was a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are will and choice. The idea of forgiveness was then adopted by Christianity, making the Judeo-Christian ethic the primary vehicle of forgiveness in history.”
Sacks further explains, “Repentance and forgiveness are not just two ideas among many. They transformed the human situation. For the first time, repentance established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent, I show that I can change. The future is not predestined; I can make it different from what it might have been. Forgiveness liberates us from the past. It breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.”
However, it is not only upon us to ask forgiveness from our fellow man. We are required to forgive as well. According to Jewish tradition, if a person asks forgiveness from someone three times and he/she does not forgive, then the person asking forgiveness is absolved and the onus is on the forgiver.
In fact, the Gemara (Yoma 87a) relates that “When Rabbi Zeira would have grounds [for a grievance] against someone, he would pass in front [of the offender], thereby making himself available to him so that he would come and appease him.”
In his Laws of Repentance, Rambam says “When the person comes before him to ask for forgiveness, he should offer it wholeheartedly and willingly.”
Asking others to forgive you is difficult. When they live far away, it becomes even harder. In that regard, Rabbi David H. Lincoln of the Rabbinical Assembly writes: “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in his Hilkhot Erev Yom Hakippurim (82:8:9), deals with modern- day communication and forgiveness. He writes that although one should always directly contact a person one has wronged and ask forgiveness, it is not always possible. If the offended person is out of town, a letter can be written. Or a telephone call or email will often suffice to get things started. If the offended person has died, tradition dictates that a minyan should be assembled at the grave, and prayers for forgiveness and even posthumous reconciliation intoned.
“The custom has evolved of approaching those with whom we have had some disagreement and asking for their forgiveness before Kol Nidrei, and this practice should be encouraged. It is understood that we cannot dare approach God for divine pardon before pacifying those fellow human beings whom we have even possibly wronged.”
In the same vein, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik writes, “If your intention is serious – say it.
As long as man has not confessed, his ‘repentance’ is not considered complete. Confession is the climax of the process of repentance; only after confession has been made can repentance be effective.
And what is repentance? That the sinner abandon and strip him- self of his sin and resolve in his heart never to do it again. He must confess in words, with his lips, and declare verbally all that he has resolved in his heart.”
Taking this further, Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, writes: “There are two aspects of asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur. One is so that we do not have any outstanding sins so that we may achieve complete atonement (MB 606:1). Yet for this reason, it would be enough if the person we wronged forgives us wholeheartedly. However, there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Remote forgiveness removes the barrier keeping people apart, but it doesn’t bring them together. For this, it is necessary to have an actual encounter between the wrongdoer and the wronged, at the very least through a shaliach (emissary).
This explains why some Sages made a special effort to make themselves available to those who wronged them, to encourage them to ask forgiveness. If the concern was merely that the sinners avoid punishment, then private forgiveness would be enough, but that wouldn’t restore friendly relations (Yoma 87a).”
This aspect of reconciliation is no less important than atonement, says Meir. “The Mishna Brura mentions that the sin should not be mentioned if it causes awkwardness which may lead to continued antagonism (MB 606:3). Even though this means the forgiveness will be less complete, reconciliation between the two sides is paramount.”
He adds that the Tur (OC 606) cites a midrash which suggests that the primary reason for making amends is not to achieve individual forgiveness but to increase brotherhood among all Jews. “It follows that even if strained relations with someone are not due to any particular sin, Yom Kippur is still the ideal time to try to approach them and try to mend the breach. In this way, the entire Jewish People will enter Succot, the time of our rejoicing, not only purified from sin but also united in friendship.”