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The Jewish Ethicist: Forgive and Forget?

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May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should I convince my friend to forgive and forget?

Q. My friend is terribly resentful of her father, who is verbally abusive.
How can I convince her to put the resentment behind her and forgive him? It's
clear that his attitude is due to a psychological problem.

A. It's true that giving people good advice can be a very important mitzvah.
The Torah tells us, "You shall surely reprove your fellow" (Leviticus
19:17). And the Talmud tells us that reproof is so important that a person
who fails to reprove others can be held responsible for their actions. The
purpose of this commandment is to fulfill what is stated in the very next
verse: "Love your neighbor as yourself." When we truly love someone, we
concern ourselves with their spiritual well being by helping them improve
their ways.

Yet the rabbis of the Talmud also warned us to be very careful how we fulfill
this mitzvah. Two thousand years ago, the great Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria
stated, "I don't believe there is anybody in this generation who is really
capable of giving reproof."

Both approaches are hinted at in the verse itself. The verse states, "Don't
hate your brother in your heart. Surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear
sin towards him." Often the two admonitions reinforce each other: Don't bear
sin towards your fellow human being by allowing him to continue in his ways,
rather you should reprove him. But these two directives may also be in
tension: while we should be willing to give reproof, we have to also be
careful not to sin against anybody by causing unnecessary shame or
embarrassment.

The key to applying the Torah's guidance is the careful diagnosis of the
problem. If the person is following a destructive course of action because of
a lack of knowledge or because of brazenness, then it can be very helpful to
gently provide the needed information and to make clear that we all need to
improve our behavior. But if the root of the problem is that a person lacks
the emotional strength to carry out the ideal course of action, then
criticism is probably counterproductive. What is needed is support and
encouragement.

Let's apply this key to your friend's situation. The emotional strength
needed to forgive someone who owes us love and affection but instead gives us
cruelty is beyond the capability of the average person. From your
description, it seems likely that the best way to help her is to provide
understanding and sympathy for her difficult situation, not unsolicited
advice. In your case, it may be that it is exactly by avoiding criticism that
you will attain the most perfect fulfillment of the Torah's commandment.

While the usual translation of the operative word in this commandment is to
reprove, perhaps a better rendition would be to improve! Each of us is
obligated to help and improve our fellow human being. Sometimes this is best
achieved by telling someone the best course of action. But just as often the
best course is to give encouragement and support, which will give him or her
the strength to carry out this course.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b, Arkhin 16b

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.



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