The Importance of Forgiveness
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.' God 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 God and against you! Pray to God that He remove us from the snakes.' Moses prayed for the people.
Rashi, 21:7: sv. Moses prayed: 'From here we see regarding one from whom people request forgiveness, that he should not be too cruel to forgive.'
The Torah Portion, Chukat, details another example of the Jewish nation complaining about their situation in the desert. On this occasion they spoke against God and Moses, 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, teaches the following principle: often the Torah relates a law 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, Moses 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, (1) 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. (2) Nevertheless, Moses immediately forgave them and prayed for them.(3)
It is hard to imagine that one could commit a graver injustice than the people did against Moses - kal v'chomer, 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 Rav Aharaon 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.(4) For example, if Reuben wrongs Simon and deserves to be punished, Simon will also suffer as he brought about Reuben's sin - unless he forgives Reuben.(5)
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 Beit 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 Beit 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 Beit 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 Beit HaLevi a dishonest person. He even lifted his hand and threatened to hit him. All this time, the Beit 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 Beit 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." Rav Chaim told his father that he clearly heard him forgiving the man. After much convincing the Beit 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 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.(6)
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 Moses and freely forgive our fellow.
1. This involves negative speech which is also false. See Ayelet HaShachar, Bamidbar, 21:7.
2. Siman 606, sif 1.
3. Indeed the Mishnah Berurah, sk.11, writes that forgiving motsi shem raah is commendable - he describes it as middat anava (the trait of humility).
4. Ayelet HaShachar, Bamdibar, 21:7.
5. 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.
6. In other essays we have written another reason why refusal to forgive is very damaging to the stubborn person. See my essay on the Three Weeks - Going Beyond the Letter of the Law.