Are We Obligated to Forgive?

I was hurt very deeply by another person. She either isn’t aware how hurtful her actions were or just doesn’t care. I’m wondering what I should do now, especially with Yom Kippur approaching. I know I am supposed to forgive everyone, but I honestly do not have it in my heart to let her behavior pass. Even if I would say I forgive her, I wouldn’t really mean it. So what should I do?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I’m very sorry to hear of your upset, but it’s nice that you are so intent on doing the right thing.

The truth is, although you feel you must forgive everyone who has hurt you, that is really not the case. Jewish law advises that we be forgiving to our fellow, but that is referring specifically to if the person truly regrets what he did and comes to beg our forgiveness. If (and only if) that occurs, we are told to open our hearts and accepts his apology.

If, however, a person hurt you and does not even care, you most certainly do not have to magically erase all your hurt and forgive him. Forgiveness comes after the apology and resolution, not before.

Even if the person who hurt you does apologize, you have the right to feel that his apology is not sufficiently sincere and heartfelt, and as a result reject it. It is his obligation to appease you and to show that he truly understands the extent of his wrong and honestly wants to make up for it.

There is, however, a different obligation in a case like yours. Leviticus 19:17 states, "You shall not hate your fellow in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow..." We are not allowed to just hate a person who has hurt us and keep it bottled up. We are obligated to somehow convey to him our hurt – and by so doing afford him the opportunity to own up to his bad behavior and make amends.

Thus, in your case, it is especially important that you let your friend know how hurtful her behavior was. If it would be too hard to bring this up in person, you could send her an email, or possibly better, involve a trusted go-between, someone respected by both parties who could help restore peace. Hopefully, the result of all this will be that your acquaintance will realize how insensitive she was, will regret it, and will sincerely ask your forgiveness. And if all that occurs, you will hopefully find it in your heart to forgive her as well.

Maimonides writes further that sometimes it is clear that the person who wronged you is not a stable person. He is not someone capable of healthy relationships. He abuses others and feels no remorse.

In such a case, writes Maimonides, there is no obligation to communicate our hurt to the person to allow him to reconcile. Nothing will be gained. It is considered an act of piety (but not an obligation) to forgive such a person. Ultimately, we should feel bad for a person like that, who is so incapable of maintaining wholesome relationships and who turns to abuse in hopeless attempt to build up his own self-esteem. He is the one with the problems – who was quite possibly the victim of abusive relationships in his own childhood. We should feel bad for him rather than angry at him. We should let it go and move on.

(Again, this is not an obligation but a pious act. If the victim can find it in his heart to feel bad for the perpetrator and forgive him that is great. But often the victim in such a situation is suffering terribly from PTSD and the like. Trying to force himself to forgive the one who abused him so is liable to increase his hurt even more. In such a case, the victim should work on healing himself. The forgiveness can come later, when he is stronger.)

We do find that it is proper (but not obligatory) to forgive all – based on Talmud Megillah 28a that a rabbi claimed one reason he lived so long was that he never went to bed at night without first forgiving anyone who hurt him that day. Based on this, the Shema we say before going to bed includes a paragraph in which we forgive anyone who hurt us.

But this requires judgment. If someone hurt you deeply, rather than trying to erase it from your heart and forgive him, the more proper approach would be to admit that you have hard feelings towards him and deal with them. Fulfill Leviticus 19:17 and express your hurt to him. This will allow him to do a proper repentance and properly mend the relationship. If you would just try to forget about it yourself, your friend would never realize the error of his ways and improve – and the relationship might limp along but would never truly be healed.

I hope the issue is resolved very soon.

(Sources: Rambam Teshuva 2:10, De’ot 6:6, 6:9, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 606:1 with Rema, Mishna Berurah 606:9, 239:9.)

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