Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
The significance of this time of the year is that it corresponds to the 40 day period beginning on 1 Elul and culminating on 10 Tishrei (AKA Yom Kippur) when Moshe, ascending again to heaven, mounted the national T’shuva effort of K’lal Yisroel to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.
At this writing we are more than halfway through this annual period of regret, remorse and reconciliation. In preparing myself both for the Days of Awe and for presenting my upcoming presentations at the Jewish Heritage Center I’ve been wrestling with some nettlesome questions about forgiveness that, although basic, are still (at least to me) quite unclear. I’d like to share some of these with you:
Our sages teach us that T’shuva motivated by fear /awe transforms (diminishes) premeditated sins into unintentional ones and that T’shuva motivated by love transforms premeditated sins to z’chuyos (something positive and meritorious). Is there a T’shuva that evokes more than the former but less than the latter i.e. that “wipes the record clean” and, if so, as awe and love seem to cover the entire possible gamut of motivations, what type of motivation to T’shuva is left that might evoke a Divine “wipes the record clean” response?
We also know that we needn’t be more saintly than G-d. A plank in our theological platform is that G-d, though infinitely forgiving and merciful, is not a vatran, one who unilaterally absolves debts without cause nor being asked. Yet we routinely recite a prayer before the bedtime Sh’ma and before Kol Nidreh (T’filas zakah) in which we extend forgiveness to those who have slighted or hurt us without them even having apologized. How can we be (apparently) more forgiving than G-d?
Can humans forgive AND forget or is forgiving and remembering sufficient? Can interpersonal T’shuva be motivated by anything other than love? (I speak of T’shuva for sins committed against peers not those committed against parents and/ or Talmidei Khakohmim). If so, is it possible for mere human beings to aspire to an imitatio dei http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imitatio_dei
approximation transforming premeditated sins to something positive and meritorious?
When asking/ begging forgiveness should we aspire to achieve a level of “forgiven but not forgotten” or to achieve a level of “forgotten”, or, even transforming premeditated sins to something positive?
Are interpersonal mitzvahs (bein odom l’khaveiro) really a separate and distinct category (intuitively I know that they are) or are they just another form of bein Odom l’mokom (between persons and G-d)?
Allow me to flesh out my conundrum; There is a halakha in the laws of honoring parents that states that one must honor a step-parent (in a parental kind of way) but only during the lifetime of the biological parent. Once the biological parent passes away no special honor, love, awe or respect need be given to the step-parent above and beyond that of other Jews (all hakoras hatov=gratitude obligations being equal). The legal theory behind this is obvious. The extraordinary honor due a step parent is only an adjunct of the extraordinary honor due a biological parent. It is presumed that the biological parent wants the child to accord extraordinary honor to the step-parent. Absent the will of the biological parent there is no compelling reason to treat the step-parent differently than anyone else.
So, to reiterate my question, do we have and fulfill interpersonal mitzvahs because the other person’s Jewishness or humanity demands as much? Or because G-d’s will is that we do so? To say the former is to skirt dangerously close to secular humanism while to affirm the latter is to diminish “loving ones fellow” to the same moral plane as the mitzvos that demand ethical treatment of animals and plants.
Just some food for Elul thought.
Note: Rabbi Schwartz is giving a series on Gaining and Granting Forgiveness at the Jewish Heritage Center, beginning on Wednesday, Sept 5th at 8:00 PM at the JHC – 68-29 Main Street Flushing. Classes will also be held on Sept 10th, 17th and 24th. Admission is free with an RSVP to 1-888-4Judaism (458-3427) or email firstname.lastname@example.org and $5 at the door.