Monday, January 2, 2017

The Three Levels of Forgiving

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much. [Oscar Wilde]

The people criticized G-d and Moshe: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There's no bread and no water, and we're sick of this unwholesome (manna) bread." G-d sent venomous snakes upon the people, and they bit the people. Many people of Israel died. The people came to Moshe and said "We have sinned! For we have spoken against G-d and against you! Pray to G-d that He should remove the snakes from us!" Moshe prayed on behalf of the people. [Chukas 21:5-7]

Even after the people criticized Moshe heavily, resulting in a punishment of venomous snakes, we nevertheless find that Moshe did not bear a grudge and prayed for the people to be saved. "From here we learn" writes Rashi, "that if a person asks you for forgiveness you should not be cruel and refrain from forgiving."

This principle is recorded by Rambam in his legal Code, the Mishneh Torah, in three places and there are a number of variations which need to be explained.

1) In Laws of Personal Injury, Rambam describes the method and process of forgiveness. "Once the attacker has asked forgiveness once, and then a second time, and we know that he has repented for his sin and he has abandoned the evil that he has done, then one must forgive him". However in Laws of Teshuvah these details are omitted. Instead, we are told that "When the sinner asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a full heart and a willing spirit." Similarly, in Laws of Moral Conduct: "If the person returns and aks him for forgiveness, then he should forgive."

2) The person who forgives is given a different name in each of the three laws. In Laws of Moral Conduct he is called the "forgiver"; in Laws of Teshuvah a "person", and in Laws of Personal Injury he is called the "injured party".

3) One further detail is that in Laws of Teshuvah a person is told not to be "difficult to appease". Why does Rambam use this phrase, and why only in Laws of Teshuvah?

The Explanation

Forgiveness can be carried out on three levels:

1) When one person sins against another, he becomes liable to be punished for the sin that he committed. In order to be relieved of this punishment he needs to appease both G-d and the person that he sinned against. Therefore, through forgiving a person for his sin, one alleviates him from a Heavenly punishment.

2) A higher level of forgiveness is to forgive not just the act of sin but the sinner himself. i.e. even though one person may forgive another for a particular bad act (thus relieving him from being punished) there still may remain a trace of dislike for the person in general. Thus, a higher level of forgiveness is to forgive the entire person completely for his wrong, so that there remains no trace of bad feeling between them.

3) The highest level of forgiveness is an emotion that is so strong and positive that it actually uproots the sins of the past, making it as if they never occurred at all. After such a forgiveness, the sinner will be loved by the offended party to the very same degree that he was loved before the sin.

It is these three types of forgiveness which Rambam refers to in his three different laws:

1) In Laws of Personal Injury, Rambam discusses the laws of compensation for specific damages that one person causes another. Thus, when he speaks there of forgiveness for a sin, he is speaking of the forgiveness that is required to relieve the sinner from the punishment of that specific sin. Therefore, Rambam spells out the precise method of forgiveness that is required to achieve atonement ("when the attacker has asked forgiveness once, and then a second time, and we know that he has repented for his sin etc. then one must forgive him"), because only by following this precise method can we be sure that the sinner will be acquitted of this punishment.

To stress the point further, Rambam speaks in terms of an "injured party" and the "forgiving" of the injury, as we are speaking here of a specific sin and its atonement.

2) In Laws of Moral Conduct, the focus is not on the actual sin and its atonement, but rather, the character of the forgiver. And, if a person is to be of fine character, it is insufficient to forgive a person just so that he will be freed from punishment. Rather, one should forgive another person completely (i.e. the second level above). Therefore, in Laws of Moral Conduct, Rambam stresses that "When one person sins against another, he should not hide the matter and remain silent" for it would be a bad character trait to harbor resentment, keeping one's ill feelings to oneself. Therefore "it is a mitzvah for him to bring the matter into the open".

Thus, we can understand why Rambam omits here details of the process of forgiveness, for the main emphasis here is not the atonement of the sinner, but the required character traits of the victim.

To stress the point further, the person is termed here not as the "injured party" but as the "forgiver".

3) In Laws of Teshuvah, Rambam is speaking of the highest level of forgiveness which is required for a person to achieve a total "return to G-d". For this to occur, the forgiveness must be done in a manner that is so deep that one uproots the sin totally; as if it had never occurred at all. This is because total forgiveness is a crucial factor in the sinner's overall return to G-d, as Rambam writes: "Sins between man and his fellow man... are not forgiven until... the person has been asked for forgiveness..."

Thus, Rambam stresses here that "A person should be easily placated and difficult to anger, and when the sinner asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a full heart and a willing spirit" (despite the fact that these details are more appropriate to Laws of Moral Conduct), because the goodwill of the victim is a crucial part of the sinner's teshuvah. Only when the victim is completely forgiving - to the extent that the sin is uprooted, as if it never existed - can we be sure that the sinner has returned to be as close to G-d as he was prior to the sin.

To stress this point further, Rambam writes "It is forbidden for a person (not an "injured party" or "forgiver") to be cruel and difficult to appease" - i.e. here we are not talking merely of the minimum forgiveness that is required to relieve the sinner from his punishment. Rather, here we are talking of the victim as a "person". And one can hope that he will not merely "forgive" his fellow who hurt him, freeing him from punishment, but that he will allow himself to be "appeased" completely, thereby helping his fellow Jew to come to a complete Teshuvah.

Source: Based on Likutei Sichos Vol 28 Lubavitcher Rebbe


Anonymous said...

Surely it depends on the gravity of the sin against the victim. Some sins against a victim are pretty trivial, may cause some hurt and resentment, but nevertheless are easily forgiven. More serious sins against a victim/s causing life-changing or unremitting hurt and negative repercussions are not so easily forgiven. 'One size' teshuva followed by automatic forgiveness does not fit all circumstances in reality. JS

Devorah said...

It is a matter of recognising that any bad thing that happens to you ultimately comes from Hashem, and the perpetrator of that bad thing is basically just an instrument of Hashem..... no matter how big or small that thing may be..... it's all from Hashem. Living a life of bitterness and resentment does not help the victim at all. the perpetrator will ultimately be punished for his/her role, as they are judged in Shamayim. The victim needs to learn to forgive because, as they say ''holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping someone else will die''.

Anonymous said...

I have difficulty with the concept of abuse,particularly on innocent children, being anything other than from forces of evil. Also, some relationships can be so toxic towards one person i.e.: wife abuse, that the only alternative is to walk away - and to do so fast - before you put your life in jeopardy. There is hardly any chance of redemption for sexual predators, etc. In biblical times they would be stoned to death, not forgiven. Ms. AP

Neshama said...

I really do not believe we need to forgive our ‘enemies’ unless they be Jewish (as we do on Yom Kippur). While some people become messengers of Shamayim of seeming bad and evil deeds, they will be punished if they did their deed with glee or were overly cruel. If an innocent perpetrator of a punishment ( from Shamayim) toward another, then they are not held accountable. This is why Divine Judgment will come to our “enemies” in this world.

Dror said...

The issue of collective forgiveness takes a quite different dimension than the individual attitude towards forgiveness. The sin perpetrated by a collectivity couldn't easily be forgoten or forgiven. It is primarily because a collectivity act is a cumulus of individual decisions, so that its wrong doings could hardly be labelled as personal error/ sin.
We can see how Hashem dealt with those nations oppressors of Yisrael - they were not forgiven and won't be. Look at Germany invaded by young Muslims ready to fight. Hashem's hand.

Devorah said...

AP; as far as abuse is concerned, then definitely you need to get out of an abusive relationship, no question about that. Forgiveness does not mean that you stay with the person, it means you free yourself from the feelings of hatred and revenge. It is a much healthier way to live, if you can do it. But it doesn't mean that you forget, because of course you will never forget it, but you can move on with life.

Anonymous said...

I would like to offer my experience here. I was an abused wife for many years, and divorced him. I spent many years being angry and made myself physically ill as well as mentally ill. Eventually after I learned about the Torah's lessons on how to forgive and I managed to forgive him, my life was changed. I was finally FREE again.

Anonymous said...

Also I want to say it is not so easy to forgive and you do have to work very hard on it but ultimately it is the best thing you can do for yourself and for your children if you have them. Best advice I can give is that you don't stoop to the level of the abuser. You must keep your self-respect and your good nature and do not become like him - an angry bitter person.

Anonymous said...

Following my divorce from an abusive husband i went through hell for about 2 1/2 yrs until the separation agreement was drafted. I gradually got myself back on my feet from an emotional standpoint, and have always provided for my children's needs. It has been a number of years now. I not only have forgiven my ex but, together with a relative of his, make sure his needs are met at a care home where he had to move in for health reasons. I also make sure the kids visit and have been very careful with my language not to cause undue harm to anyone. Hashem took amazing care of the children and i. The silver lining: i became a Baal Teshuva with the local Chabad's help. The power of forgiveness is incredible but many ex husbands still try to control and harm their ex wives and everyone suffers, mostly the children. Ms. AP

Anonymous said...

Ms. AP..
I understand and can empathize with you.

Please read my email i sent.

Devorah, thank you for your postings.. so much helped me on your blog.

Even comments from some of your dear readers.. make me see life in a more realistic way.

Mostly, i thank Hashem for being there even when i was not aware.

Hashem is there for all.. Baruch Hashem.