The Importance of Forgiveness
Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )
Bamidbar, 21:4-7: They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew short with the road. The people spoke against G-d and against Moshe: ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our soul is at its limit with the insubstantial food.’ G-d sent the snakes, the burning ones, against the people and they bit the people; and a large multitude of Israel died. The people came to Moshe and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against HaShem and against you! Pray to HaShem that He remove us from the snakes.’ Moshe prayed for the people.
Rashi, 21:7: sv. Moshe prayed: ‘From here we see regarding one from whom people request forgiveness, that he should not be too cruel to forgive.’
The Torah Portion of Chukat details another example of the Jewish nation complaining about their situation in the desert. On this occasion they spoke against God and Moshe, and the punishment was immediate and devastating: deadly snakes. They then acknowledged their sin and asked Moshe to pray for them – and he agreed. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that Moshe did forgive them, teaching that when a person is wronged by his fellow, he should not stubbornly refuse to forgive him.
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah teaches the following principle: often the Torah relates a halacha or an idea in Jewish thought by highlighting an extreme example of a situation, and we can then apply that lesson through a kal v’chomer (a priori) to other cases. In our Midrash, Moshe would certainly have been justified in not forgiving the people. Firstly, they viewed his great kindnesses as acts of cruelty. He took them to the desert in order to save them from Pharaoh and they complained that he took them to die there. He provided them with the holy manna and they moaned that it was insubstantial. They were guilty of motsi shem raah (false negative speech) in addition to lashon hara. The Rema writes that even though one must forgive those who sin against him, this is not the case with regards to motsi shem raah.1 Nevertheless, Moshe immediately forgave them and prayed for them.2
It is hard to imagine that one could commit a graver injustice than the people did against Moshe – all the more so, every individual is expected to forgive those who wrong him. Rashi adds that refusal to forgive others is considered cruelty. One who does not forgive is actually spiritually damaged, as Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman notes - the Gemara in Shabbat tells that one who is the cause of another Jew’s punishment cannot dwell in God’s presence in the Next World.3 For example, if Reuven wrongs Shimon and deserves to be punished, Shimon will also suffer as he brought about Reuven’s sin - unless he forgives Reuven.4
The following story demonstrates how seriously our Torah leaders took this matter. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik related the following story about his father, Rabbi Yosef Dov author of the Beis HaLevi. They were once sitting together learning in the Slutzk yeshiva when one of the town butchers entered the study hall and started screaming and shaming the Beis HaLevi. Among other insults, he accused the great Rabbi of judging unfairly, for he had judged him and another butcher the previous day. He claimed that even though he was innocent, he had been found guilty because the other butcher had bribed the Beis HaLevi.
When he heard what the butcher was accusing him of, he put on his hat and jacket, stood up and quietly looked down at the ground. The butcher saw that he was standing shamefaced, so he continued with his tirade. He cursed all the rabbis and called the Beis HaLevi a dishonest person. He even lifted his hand and threatened to hit him. All this time, the Beis HaLevi controlled himself and bore his shame in silence. As the butcher began to leave the study hall he continued mouthing curses and insults, but the Beis HaLevi did not try to justify himself or scold him. Instead, he went after him saying, “I forgive you, I forgive you. No one is held accountable for his suffering.”
The following day, this butcher was leading some bulls that he had bought. One of them suddenly went wild, attacked the butcher and killed him. This incident greatly distressed the Beis HaLevi and he became dejected. Rav Chaim related that his father told him a few times, "I am afraid that I caused his death because of my animosity.” Rabbi Chaim told his father that he clearly heard him forgiving the man. After much convincing the Beis HaLevi was somewhat consoled, but was still pained over the incident. He went to the butcher's funeral, cried bitterly upon his grave and took it upon himself to say Kaddish for eleven months and learn Mishnayot daily to elevate the butcher's soul. Every year on his yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) he would fast and learn Torah to uplift his soul, practicing the same customs that he would observe on his own father's yahrtzeit. This incredible story demonstrates how far one should go to not be the cause of someone else’s suffering even when the other person is clearly in the wrong.
We have seen how important it is to forgive others, and the spiritual ramifications of refusal to do so. On a more basic level, refusal to forgive often prevents disputes from being resolved. Many terrible disputes that ruined families and friendships could have been avoided or curtailed if the parties would have forgiven each other. May we merit to learn from the example of Moshe and freely forgive our fellow.
- Siman 606, sif 1.
- Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah, sk.11, writes that forgiving motsi shem raah is commendable.
- Ayelet HaShachar, Bamdibar, 21:7.
- It seems clear from the commentaries that this is only true when the person who was wronged did not do what he could to exonerate the sinner, the most obvious example being to forgive his sin. If the sinner then continues to stubbornly refuse to ask for forgiveness, then the victim bears no responsibility since he has done what he can to prevent the sinner being punished.