The Jewish Ethicist - Forgiving and Forgetting to Ourselves
Judaism preaches "constructive clemency".
Q. I made some poor judgments in my business. My own life is now a wreck, and I have also harmed others who are left with unpaid debts. How can I move on?
A. In a previous column we discussed Judaism's approach to forgiving others. There we explained that Judaism doesn't require or even encourage a person to forgive someone who harmed him freely and unconditionally. It's completely legitimate to demand fair recompense or an appropriate apology. This approach benefits both parties. The injured party obtains recompense and acknowledgement, and the wrongdoer has the ability to put his transgression behind him knowing that he has made amends.
But the demands made of the wrongdoer should be reasonable, and their object should be to move forward to a new, repaired relationship. We find in the Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law): "One asked to forgive should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness, unless he intends for the benefit of the one requesting forgiveness". (1) The commentators explain that delaying forgiveness can sometimes benefit the wrongdoer by making him internalize the gravity of his acts and truly regret them.
The ideal is an attitude of "constructive clemency". We need a forgiving attitude, but not at the expense of fixing what's been broken.
The same approach guides our attitudes towards our own sins. Certainly a person needs to do what is in his ability to rectify what he has wronged, and to commit himself to avoid making the same transgression in the future. As Maimonides explains, Jewish law recognizes three stages in this process: regret for the past, acknowledgement of the sin through confession before God, and commitment for the future. (2)
Should a person then "forgive and forget" himself? That depends. On the one hand, there is an advantage to always keeping our past misdeeds in mind. A person who made a mistake in the past needs particular vigilance from falling into his past ways. The book of Psalms (51:4-5) states: "Thoroughly cleanse me of my transgression, and purify me from my sin. For I well know my crime, and my sin is before me always". Based on this, the Talmud teaches that even if one has already made a frank confession of one's sins before God, it is praiseworthy to repeat the confession once a year on subsequent Days of Repentance. (3) This corresponds to the person who intentionally delays forgiveness for the benefit of the wrongdoer.
On the other hand, excessive attention to past misdeeds can be an obstacle to putting them behind us. A competing opinion in the Talmud claims that someone who repeats confession on a past misdeed is likened to "As a dog who returns to his own vomit, so is a fool who persists in his folly" (Proverbs 26:11).
Some Hasidic works draw particular attention to this problem. While the Talmud tells us that each person is warned to always be like a wicked person in his own eyes (4), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, one of the earliest Hasidic masters, writes: "This needs to be understood properly, for the Mishna (5) tells us, 'Don't be wicked before yourself', and furthermore if a person sees himself as wicked he will become saddened and unable to serve God with joy." (6) Rav Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, a slightly later leader, wrote that when one dwells on past misdeeds it can have the effect of making the expression of regret routine and thus insincere. (7) The Hasidic movement, with its emphasis on joy in serving God, was particularly emphatic that a person should not dwell too much on past misdeeds.
The conclusion is as follows: A person who finds that recalling past missteps is necessary for him to keep from backsliding should avoid "forgive and forget"; for him, the watchword is "forgive and remember". This is why Alcoholics Anonymous members open their discussions by acknowledging, "I'm an alcoholic".
But a person who finds that keeping the past in mind prevents him from enjoying life and serving God with joy, should indeed "fix, forgive, forget".
Law and custom provide various ways for debtors who are in over their heads to make livable arrangements with creditors and to move forward in life. Do your best to live up to the arrangements you negotiate in the wake of your business failure, to put the whole situation behind you, and to make a new start with joy and hope, and without dwelling on past mistakes.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 606:1 in Rema (2) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Repentance 1:1 (3) Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86b (4) Babylonian Talmud Nidda 30b (5) Mishnah Avot 2:18 (6) Book of Tanyia chapter 1 (7) Benei Yissachar Tishrei 7:9
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.