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The Jewish Ethicist: Fix, Forgive, Forget

The Jewish Ethicist: Fix, Forgive, Forget

Should I just "forgive and forget" an assault?

by

Q. Though my working relations at work have always been good, recently a supervisor made a very aggressive and threatening outburst. When the boss heard of this, he apologized and also had the supervisor apologize. The supervisor was not subject to any sanctions at all! I feel I have been treated very shabbily, and I also find it very difficult to continue working with this supervisor. Should I take action or just "forgive and forget"?

A. I am sorry that you had to go through such a harrowing experience. Let's consider the best reaction to such a trial.

One of the most important foundations of Jewish belief is that a person can not obtain forgiveness from God unless he first does his best to seek forgiveness from the person he has wronged. Our law explicitly states that repentance and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are ineffective unless the wrongdoer makes amends to the victim.

Our tradition also states that it is proper for the wronged individual to be forbearing and not vindictive. These dual obligations give human beings a fighting chance to restore constructive relations after unfortunate incidents where one person wrongs another in any way. (1)

While a victim should be forbearing and not vindictive, it is completely appropriate to demand that the wrongdoer make a proper atonement and proper amends. There is no demand that we should just "forgive and forget" without trying to rectify the situation! Often only after we fix can we forgive, and only after we forgive do we need to forget.

I think the apology which was offered to you was an important step and I believe you should acknowledge this to the person who assaulted you. This gesture should encourage you to think that forgiveness is possible, but it is perfectly proper for you to explain that in order to forgive whole-heartedly certain steps are required. It sounds to me that you think three steps are in order:

1. If this incident had been taken seriously it should have been written up in the person's file;

2. You may also feel that you are due some sum of damages for the assault itself.

3. If you feel that as a result of the aggression you can't continue working, you probably consider yourself effectively fired. (This is sometimes called "constructive dismissal.") Thus you may want to demand severance pay as well.

A constructive response would then be to say: "I'm happy that you regret your actions and want to make amends. I will be able to forgive you if I see that you and the company genuinely acknowledge the seriousness of the transgression by including a write-up in the employment record, and are also willing to compensate me for my job and my suffering". Then you should state a sum which you sincerely think is a fair amount for these items - not an exaggerated amount in order to extort money, but also not a small, merely symbolic amount if you feel that you have suffered real damage. While no physical harm was done to you, our law acknowledges that shame at an attack can be one aspect of damages. (2)

It's reasonable for the other side also to want to negotiate, and there is nothing illegitimate about it. Perhaps they may persuade you that an oblique write-up would be enough for a one-time outburst, or that a smaller amount of money should really be sufficient. The overall idea is that you should never be stubborn and vindictive in refusing to forgive, but you also have no obligation to accept a settlement which you feel is not an adequate recompense for your experience.

From the wrongdoer's perspective, the appropriate reaction is to express regret, to ask forgiveness and at the same time to offer to make amends for any damage. Just as the injured party doesn't have to accept any offer made by the damager, likewise the wrongdoer doesn't have to automatically give in to any demand if he is convinced that it is excessive. The injured party should make a reasonable demand, and the injuring party should be forthcoming with a respectable offer. In the case where the two sides greatly differ on how much the damages should be, it is best if they can agree on some kind of impartial arbiter such as an arbitrator or mediator.

You would think it would be an easy thing for a person to clearly enunciate how he thinks he has been wronged and to work to rectify the matter, or for a wrongdoer to sincerely apologize and work to make a reasonable and fair settlement. Actually, this is one of the most difficult things in the world. When a person is wronged, there is a natural tendency to be hostile and vindictive. This attitude just leads to increased conflict. When a person gets over this attitude, very often he just wants to "forgive and forget". Yet this approach is also not constructive - the problem is a real one and needs to be dealt with, not forgotten. I hope that you will find the strength to seek a constructive resolution to your situation, and that your former employer will find the strength to cooperate.

Of course if you genuinely prefer just to put the whole thing behind you, there is nothing wrong with deciding to forgive and forget. The problem is that many people think they are putting something behind them and in actuality they are only suppressing it. So by all means do not feel obligated to pursue the matter if you really just prefer to forget about it. But you must know that it is perfectly acceptable for you to seek an equitable settlement of all issues.

SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 606:1 (2) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 420:24, 39, 41

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

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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 Aish.com 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 www.besr.org.

Published: March 12, 2005


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