Ki Tetse: Mercy and the Injustice of Forgiveness

D’var Torah – Ki Tetse -- Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

September 1, 2012; 14 Elul 5772

Mercy and the Injustice of Forgiveness

(Given at Congregation Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem)

Last week, I described the loss of my Smartphone on a Jerusalem bus and suggested a variety of Chesbon HaNefesh lessons it inspired.  But the High Holidays are not only about self-evaluation.  They are also, of course, about seeking and granting forgiveness. 

It’s now been more than a week since I lost my Smartphone, and no one has contacted me nor turned it in to the bus company lost and found.  According to this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse, (22:1-3), which requires the return of (identifiable) lost property, they have therefore stolen it from me.   Am I obliged to forgive the thief?

The Torah does not discuss forgiveness obligations at much length.  Leviticus 19:18  states, generally, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” But the subject of forgiveness is elucidated at length by the Rambam (Maimonides) in his Hilchot T’shuvah, the Laws of Repentance.

As with most topics in Judaism that guide us through the complexity of life and the subtleties of interpersonal relations, forgiveness is complex, so I can only summarize the highlights here.   

To begin with, last week’s Torah portion contained the ringing pronouncement “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”  Judaism looks at forgiveness first from the perspective of justice.   Forgiveness is not something to be automatically or freely granted, for where is the justice in this?  Rather, we are only obliged to forgive when the offender deserves it.  To grant forgiveness when the transgressor doesn’t deserve it is an injustice to the victim and undermines the purpose of encouraging proper repentance -- arguments that families of crime victims often make at parole hearings.  (Here in Israel, releasing unrepentant terrorist murderers of civilians before the end of their prison terms, even to obtain the release of hostages, wrenches society).     

So, when does an offender deserve forgiveness?  According to our tradition, only when he or she fulfills all four steps of t’shuvah:  

1.    Acknowledges their wrong and the harm they caused.  (Merely telling someone, “If I hurt you this past year, I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it.  There’s a reason we go through all of the individual Al Chets during the High Holiday liturgy.   We have to identify and acknowledge what we have done to truly begin to do t’shuvah for them.) 

2.    Sincerely apologize to the victim, attempting to do so three times, if necessary. 

3.    Make complete restitution.  There is no justice in forgiving someone who just says “I’m sorry,” but who doesn’t repair the damage they’ve caused.  How sorry can they be?  And what justice can result from forgiveness if the victim remains damaged and suffering?

4.    If and when they have the opportunity to repeat their offense, they must refrain from repeating the offense.  Maimonides uses the example of an adulterer who again has the opportunity with the same person, and feels the same attraction, but this time does not act on it.  Absent unusual circumstances (e.g. a psychiatric disorder), just about any example of a repeat omission or commission applies.  

If the offender doesn’t do all these things, then, according to our tradition, forgiveness is not deserved.   On the other hand, if they do, we must forgive them, for to not do so would be to harbor a grudge and not “love our fellow as ourselves.”   Moreover, if we don’t forgive others who deserve forgiveness, how can we ask them to forgive us after we’ve taken each of the four steps?  

But perhaps you’ve been thinking: “there’s a huge hole in this argument.”  How can restitution be essential to forgiveness when it is often impossible?  The obvious example is the taking of an innocent life, but everyday gossip is a far more common example.  We’ve probably all heard the midrash of the gossiper who wanted to be forgiven.  The rabbi told him to open a feather pillow to the wind, and then gather all of the feathers.  That’s probably impossible, and so therefore is the perpetrator’s opportunity for forgiveness.  

This is not a flaw in the argument, it’s justice.  It shows that even the most common sins, like gossip, can cause grievous harm and be extremely serious.  It also reminds us that only the victim can grant forgiveness.  We sometimes hear of  parents who immediately forgive the murderer of their child.  Such a thing is an anathema to Judaism; how is that just?  Their child was not their property.  Since only the victim can receive restitution and forgive, justice precludes forgiveness in many instances of improper conduct.   

Does this make Judaism cruel or vengeful?  Some would say so, but I don’t.  Justice for the innocent victim is far more important than forgiveness for the transgressor.  Why shouldn’t full restitution be required (isn’t that what we seek when we are harmed)?  Where are our ethical and societal priorities?  Don’t we want to encourage both individual and corporate (group) acceptance of responsibility, of the need for t’shuvah, and of justice?  Isn’t it our obligation to set standards that will promote a just and workable society, not just one in which everyone can feel good and “forgiven?”

But, as prudent and even aspirational as these standards are, where does this leave us if we are the victim of the offense?  If justice doesn’t warrant the offender being forgiven, does this prevent us from forgiving the harm done to us?

No.  While Judaism first looks at forgiveness from the perspective of justice, it also recognizes that strict justice should often be tempered both with mercy and pragmatism.  While we are not required to forgive those who do not seek it, or who seek it but do not merit it, granting forgiveness nevertheless allows us to be merciful, which of course, is how we want others to treat us.   Remember that, as I stated at the beginning of this D’var Torah, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen” is immediately followed by “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.”  “Loving your fellow as yourself” often means forgiving even when justice does not warrant it.  Indeed, this is the very definition of mercy.  Mercy is a virtue, and Torah also bids us to “Do the right and the good.”   Not just to do what is right, but also what is good. 

Moreover, from a practical side, Judaism recognizes that forgiving our family members, our friends, our acquaintances and business associates – even our rabbi! – when they might not “deserve” it allows us to maintain relationships and not harbor a grudge.   

And, physical and mental health professionals tell us that forgiveness is good for us, whereas retaining anger and resentment can be very harmful.

Finally, then, when we are required to forgive, or when we decide to be virtuous and do so even when not required, how should we forgive?  Here too, our tradition guides us.  In his Laws of Character Development, Maimonides counsels five principles:  

1.    “A person should not be cruel when forgiving another.”  (Don’t say “I forgive you even though you are despicable and don’t deserve it.”)  

2.    If a relatively minor offense is committed against you, forgive the offender in a way that conveys the feeling that you do not regard the offense as significant.

3.    Let the person feel your forgiveness by resuming your relationship.

4.    Go out of your way to offer to those who have hurt you the opportunity to repent.

5.    Strive to let your forgiveness be wholehearted.  (Try to think of some growth or good that came from it.  I’ve learned so much about my own faults, about Chesbon HaNefesh, and about forgiveness due to the theft of my phone!).

Forgiveness can be extremely painful and difficult.  Perhaps it need be accomplished in slow, small steps, especially if there is emotional hurt or potential further harm.  Forgiving does not mean either “forgetting” nor “allowing yourself to be put in the same vulnerable position.”  If a person has caused us grievous harm, it may be impossible and irresponsible to move quickly.  Perhaps the first step is to just be in the same room with them again, among many other people, but with no interaction.   In time, the next step might be to just say “hello” or “Shabbat shalom.”  Eventually, polite chit-chat may be possible.  And later, more substantial but still guarded conversations, still not letting the person cross boundaries.  Perhaps the relationship will never get beyond this, but this permits a level of interaction with reduced hostility and stress.

As you can see even from these summary highlights, Judaism has quite a bit to teach us about forgiveness.  And since forgiveness is what we spend most of the High Holidays seeking and granting, it behooves us to understand what is expected of us and of others.  

So, have I forgiven whoever has my phone?  They don’t deserve it. They didn’t send me an email, call me, or even return the phone to the lost and found.  But in the end, I benefited.   This incident has prompted me to think a lot about forgiveness.   Do I deserve to be forgiven for my transgressions?  Have I acknowledged them with specificity?  Have I gone to the victims and sincerely apologized?  Have I tried to make restitution, if it is possible?  And will I make extra efforts not to repeat my offenses?  Will I sincerely apologize to G-d for those things that are impossible for me to do t’shuvah for?   These are the things I’ll try to examine as my Chesbon Hanefesh continues.   And I recommend that you do, too.   

Not only “justice, justice” but also forgiveness, shall thou pursue. 

Shabbat shalom. 

Principle Source

Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol 1. You Shall Be Holy.  Bell Tower: New York 2006. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3