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The Jewish Ethicist: Fix, Forgive, Forget Redux

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

What if I can't forgive?

Q. In a recent column you wrote that we don't need to forgive blindly; it is proper to demand reasonable amends for any wrongs. What should I do if a person has so harassed and offended me that I feel I can't forgive him at all?

A. Jewish law emphatically holds that we should be generous and forthcoming in forgiving those who have transgressed against us, and that following forgiveness we should put the entire matter behind us. For example, the Torah tells us, "Don't take vengeance and don't bear a grudge" (Leviticus 19:18).

However, as we pointed out, this behavior is appropriate after amends have been made; it is not always possible or even desirable beforehand. First we need to fix; only afterwards do we forgive; after passing these two stages we should indeed forget.

The process of forgiveness in Jewish tradition basically has two distinct functions. One function is to provide expiation for the wrongdoer; as we have explained before, our tradition is adamant that a person can not attain complete atonement before God until he has first endeavored to get atonement from the victim of his wrongdoing. But there is also another reason: forgiveness restores harmony and friendship among those riven by dispute.

Which element is more important? The more important is peace, shalom. For this reason, many authorities say that we should not seek forgiveness for a slight if the victim doesn't know about it and if revealing it is clearly likely to cause friction and ill will. ("I want you to know that I'm really sorry about calling you stupid, ugly, and dishonest." "What did you call me?!")

The great medieval legal codifier Rav Yaakov ben Asher records the requirement to appease and make amends to anyone we have wronged as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) approaches. To illustrate the point he cites the following Midrash: "[The angel] Samael sees that there is no sin among the people of Israel on Yom Kippur, and he says, 'Master of the universe, is there any other nation on earth so like the angels?'" Then Samael begins to list the similarities. The culmination of the list is as follows: "Just as the angels are free of sin, so Israel are free of sin. And just as the angels coexist in peace, so are Israel on Yom Kippur". We see that the highest level of all is not being free of sin, but rather to live together in shalom.

So even if you feel that you will not be able to forgive the man who has been harassing you, you should still seek ways of attaining coexistence. A good first step is to state unambiguously and assertively that you would like him to leave you alone, and that if he doesn't respect your wishes you will enlist the help of others. This step is often enough. If not, the next step is to go ahead and explain your plight to others, preferably community members respected by the harasser who may have a positive influence on him. It may ultimately be necessary to turn to law enforcement (either making a complaint or a lawsuit), but this too does not need to be in a vindictive attitude but rather out of a desire to create effective coexistence, which sometimes can be attained only by keeping a safe distance. As Robert Frost observed, "good fences make good neighbors".

"Fix, forgive, forget" is the ideal evolution of circumstances. But even if we are unable to complete the process, it is incumbent upon us to get as far as we can. Forgive, even if you can't forget; and fix, even if you can't forgive.

SOURCE: Tur, Shulchan Arukh and commentaries on Orach Chaim 606.

A NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: I got many interesting messages about last week's column. The special Purim edition was meant to poke gentle fun at some of the crazier aspects of the generally positive Jewish dating scene. It is wonderful that traditionally oriented Jewish singles are interested in the backgrounds of their dates beyond the superficial qualities usually disclosed, but the phenomenon and particularly the scope of "questionnaire syndrome" have been known to get out of hand. The Jewish Ethicist format provided an oblique and (hopefully) humorous way of approaching this issue. I hope that I will be able to deal next Purim with some of the readers' questions the column prompted, such as isn't it more ethical to "go Dutch".

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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 and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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