Asking Forgiveness and Forgiving Others
BY RABBI YOSEF ZVI RIMON
The goal of Yom Kippur is explained in the verses in Parashat Acharei Mot: “And [all this] shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work neither the native nor the stranger who dwells among you. For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before Hashem, you shall be cleansed from all your sins” (Vayikra 16:29–30).
The Torah establishes that Yom Kippur is intended for atonement for sins: “you shall be cleansed from all your sins.” The character of the day is derived from this goal. The Rambam describes Yom Kippur as “the apex of forgiveness and pardon for Israel,” and as a time of repentance:
“Yom Kippur is the time of teshuva for all, both individuals and the community at large. It is the apex of forgiveness and pardon for Israel. Accordingly, everyone is obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:7).
Why does G-d forgive us? How should we behave in order for Him to forgive us?
As is well known, we must repent for both transgressions between man and G-d (בֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם) as well as transgressions between man and his friend (בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ). Regarding transgressions between a man and his friend, the Shulchan Aruch rules that “Yom Kippur does not atone until he reconciles with his friend” (Orach Chaim 606:1). Therefore, a person is obligated to reconcile with other people for the sins he committed against them, as Yom Kippur will not help him with these sins.
Many people customarily ask for forgiveness on Erev Yom Kippur from acquaintances and family members against whom they have not really sinned. However, it is important to realize that the main goal is to ask forgiveness from those people with whom we have a real quarrel or conflict.
Is a person obligated to forgive someone who apologizes to him when it is clear that the person apologizing is only superficially asking for forgiveness, but does not truly regret his actions and is likely to repeat his sin? It seems not. To do teshuva, it is not enough to ask for forgiveness. One must repent for his sins and take it upon himself not to do them again. As long as the person apologizing does not do so, he has not accomplished true teshuva and there is no obligation to forgive him. This principle emerges from the words of the Rambam and applies both to sins against G-d and to sins against man:
“Similarly, someone who injures a colleague or damages his property does not attain atonement, even though he pays him what he owes, until he confesses and makes a commitment never to do such a thing again, as implied by the phrase (Bamidbar 5:6), ‘any of the sins of man’” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1).
Do not be satisfied with a verbal apology. The one apologizing must commit to avoiding his sin in the future. The Rambam writes that the person apologizing must placate the person he has wronged until the victim forgives him: “Teshuva and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and G-d, such as a person who ate a forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations. However, sins between man and man, such as a person who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like, will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him. Even if a person restores the money that he owes [the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:9).
The demand for true remorse is also expressed on the part of the victim. As Rambam states: “It is forbidden for the person who suffered the injury to be cruel and not to forgive the one who caused the injury. This is not the course of behavior for a descendant of Israel. Instead, since the person who caused the injury asks and pleads with him for forgiveness once or twice, and he knows that he has repented from his sin and regrets his evil deeds, he should forgive him. Whoever hastens to grant forgiveness is praiseworthy and is regarded favorably by the Sages” (Hilchot Chovel U’Mazik 5:10).
It is clear that the victim is only required to forgive if he knows that the person apologizing has “repented of his sin and regretted his evil.” At the same time, the victim must not harden his heart, but rather “whoever hastens to grant forgiveness is praiseworthy and is regarded favorably by the Sages.”
It seems that we can learn this attribute from G-d Himself. Tomer Devorah, by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570), opens with a parable. In Sefer HaHeichalot, G-d is referred to as “an insulted King,” a sobriquet used subsequently in various Kabbalistic and Chassidic works. What is the meaning of this name?
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero explains: The Master of the Universe knows everything – He is aware of the actions of each and every one of us, and the gap between them and the command He has given us. The Almighty is omnipotent in His ability to strike sinners immediately, as He did to Yerovam who “stretched out his hand… and dried it up” (Melachim I 13:4). If He would run the world in this way, everyone and everything would be forced to do His bidding. The angels say to G-d: Why don’t You act against the people who harm Your kingdom? This is why the ministering angels call G-d an insulted King.” G-d is forgiving. G-d is patient. G-d is not strict with us and continues to perform kindnesses for us.
We all want G-d to forgive us. But to achieve forgiveness we must adopt G-d’s attributes: not to worry about our own honor and to know how to forgive others.
Once an elderly woman in her eighties came to my house on Erev Rosh Hashanah to do hatarat nedarim, the annulment of vows. At first I was worried; would I be able to release her vow? The story she told was truly shocking. Her eighty-three-year-old brother had recently explained to her why he refused to speak with her for more than forty years. Decades earlier, during a heated argument, the woman told their mother that she would never set foot in their house again. For forty years her brother harbored this painful sentence in his heart and refused to speak to his sister. Only now, in their old age, did he propose that she annul her vow and reconcile with him.
The woman who stood in front of me declared that she did not remember ever saying such a thing to her mother. In her view, it was very unlikely she would have said something so harsh because she had always been on good terms with her mother. Nevertheless, she asked me to arrange an annulment of vows. It was easy to annul this vow, which was no longer relevant anyway. Her mother had died many years before, and her house no longer exists. After we symbolically annulled the vow, I couldn’t stop thinking: what severity! For forty years, two siblings did not speak! Even if the story is true and the sentence was said – is it impossible to forgive?
One who wants to merit forgiveness must attach himself to G-d’s attributes and not be strict. Whenever we are going through hard times and are in need, we pray and ask for mercy. However, in day-to-day life we take all the good in our lives for granted, as if we are entitled to this good by law. Do we really deserve this abundance? It turns out that we are not perfect, and we do not deserve all the blessings in our lives. And yet G-d is not strict with us, He believes in us and gives us many chances to improve.
Particularly on Yom Kippur, we must embody G-d’s attributes and not be overly strict with others. May G-d continue to be kind and tolerant with us, and may He seal us all for a good and happy year, a year in which G-d will fulfill all the wishes of our hearts, for good.
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon is Head of Mizrachi’s Educational Advisory Board and Rabbinic Council. He serves as the Chief Rabbi of Gush Etzion, Rosh Yeshivah of the Jerusalem College of Technology and is the Founder and Chairman of Sulamot and La’Ofek.