Ah it’s Elul…and Forgiveness is in the Air!

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 series@thejhc.com and $5 at the door.

37 comments on “Ah it’s Elul…and Forgiveness is in the Air!

  1. Have Sephardim (in general, or a specific community) adopted the practice of saying Tefilas Zaka at all? Even for Ashkenazim, it only goes back about 200 years. Tefilas Zaka was written by the author of Chayei Adam, Rav Avraham Danzig ZT”L of Danzig and later Vilna.

  2. Tefilas zakah is recited when and how it is because Yom Kippur is the deadline for T’shuva and is ineffectual for atoning the sins we commit against our peers absent our peers forgiveness.

    Emotionally ready or not it is our surrogate for the much heavier lifting of actually approaching the offended party, contritely admitting (and according to the Bakh, specifying) the wrongdoing, expressing remorse for having done it and resolution not to repeat it.

    Not having his Torah in front of me I can only wonder if Chacham Bentzion Abba Shaul would’ve advised NOT reciting the relevant passages in Tefilas Zakah before Kol Nidrei unless “he feels capable of sincerely forgiving the individual for the wrong committed against him.” ?

  3. These may be two different approaches or two levels of the same approach. One text seems to assume that the person reciting it wishes to declare a broader amnesty than the other text does.

  4. How do we then explain people acting “lifnim mishuras hadin”? HaShem Himself is known to push Midas HaDin aside as He wishes.

    We even have a night prayer (printed with similar wordings in many Ashkenazic, Chassidic, and Sephardic siddurim) in which we say “…hareni mochel…”.

    The rest of this comment is an excerpt from http://dailyhalacha.com/Display.asp?PageIndex=5&ClipID=1122
    by Rabbi Eli J. Mansour:

    …Before going to sleep one should also recite the declaration, “Ribono Shel Olam Hareni Mochel Ve’solei’ach…” as printed in the Siddurim. In this declaration one grants forgiveness to anyone who wronged him at any point during that day. The source of this practice is the Gemara’s account that Mar Zutra would say each night before going to sleep, “Shari Lei Le’man De’tza’aran” – “I forgive anyone who caused me distress.”

    However, Chacham Bentzion Abba Shaul (Israel, 1924-1998) writes that a person should recite this declaration only if he sincerely grants forgiveness to anyone who has wronged him. If a person has a grievance towards an individual for which he is not yet prepared to forgive, he should omit this recitation. He should recite it only when he feels capable of sincerely forgiving the individual for the wrong committed against him.

    Summary: …Additionally, one should declare his forgiveness for anyone who has wronged him by reciting “Hareni Mochel”; if he does not yet forgive a certain individual, he should not recite this declaration until he indeed grants sincere forgiveness.

  5. So says the Chovos HaLevovos.

    But I’m still wrestling with this. Why should He? Why should He either demand/expect or even inspire behavior among human beings that seem to aspire to greater compassion or magnanimity than His own?

    To illustrate: We paskin that we need not forgive those who offended us with the rationale that “Aw (s)he’ll forgive me anyway”. This is because it is consistent with Divine behavior: HaOmer ekhta v’Oshuv ain maspikin b’yado la’asos T’shuva= “One who (sins saying) ‘I will sin and then repent’ (Heaven)we do not afford him the wherewithal to do T’shuva”.

    This exception to the need to forgive others their tresspasses against us is “codified” in Tefilas Zakah.

  6. Among the Talmud/halakhic literature’s classic examples of asking forgiveness bein adam l’khaveiro is if A robbed or maimed B and made monetary compensation for the theft or dismemberment he should still ask forgiveness and/or mollify B. These offenses are unequivocal. There is no “dan l’kaf z’khus” wiggle room. In such and in similar cases why should B forgive A preemptively?

  7. There are levels within the performance of every mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah has a baseline positive effect even if our motivations in doing it are not totally selfless.

    We might give to tzedakkah, for example, with our own satisfaction or reward in mind, but the needy still get the financial boost.

  8. Chaim, obviously you can’t truly forgive someone if your intention is only for yourself. I was merely trying to point out a side benefit of living your life by trying to always be dan l’chaf zchus and where we do take things to heart, trying to find it within ourselves to forgive someone else. If someone works on themselves on a regular basis in this area, they will find themselves doing many acts of chessed, naturally. And even if someone starts out doing a chessed or forgiving someone out of self-interest, if they do this on a regular basis then doing acts of chessed and forgiving others hopefully will become a way of life and they’ll be doing it lishma. I can’t imagine someone constantly doing chessed only out of the “high” they get from doing chessed.

  9. Esti-

    Is it really forgiveness if it is self-serving, if it is extended so that WE can move on?

    We are supposed to emulate the chesed of Hashem. Does Hashem forgive so that He can “move on”?

  10. Man may never comprehend G-d’s “mind.” But let him not think, G-d tells Moses, that G-d, who understands the purpose of the pain, gives Himself the luxury of not feeling the intensity of the darkness. Every tear we shed becomes His tear. He may not wipe them away, but He makes them His.
    (This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Shemos and 5743, Jan. 8,

    So, our pain is G-d’s pain, and although not logical, but spiritual, our forgiveness is his forgiveness. A perfect entity can do no wrong, but if he asked to be blessed from a human being, although not logical, he/she/it can also seek forgiveness. Even in our prayers it states, “…in our affliction, he is afflicted…”

  11. How can we be more forgiving than G-d?
    We have an obligation to be dan l’chaf zchus, as we don’t know everything. HaShem, of course, knows everything, including everyone’s intent at all times, so He need not be forgiving where He knows everyone’s true intentions and all the facts surrounding all situations, conversations, etc. WE puny little beings can’t possibly know everything that went into every situation, so although we may feel slighted, wronged, damaged, etc., we don’t know the entire picture, so we have to be forgiving. It also helps US to be forgiving of others, as we all know that carrying around a grudge, a hurt, etc. is very heavy and weighs us down in other areas of our lives, not allowing us to live up to our potential. Forgiveness allows US to go on. Even if the Din is that we didn’t need to forgive, at the end of the day, how good does revenge/exacting justice feel as opposed to just forgiving and moving on to better things in life like enjoyment of things we truly appreciate?

  12. Regarding the comment by MG September 5th, 2007 12:41 :

    Since we’re also commanded in the Torah to love geirei tzedek (true converts to Judaism) as ourselves, this all points to the fact that a non-Jew differs from a Jew in some key respect that is not racial.

    I’d be interested to know (calling all rabbis!) if it matters in this context whether the non-Jew in question is a practicing Ben Noach or not.

    The sefer Tanya, for example, deals with the uniqueness of Jews on the soul level, which may have a bearing on this discussion.

    I read a piece once by Rabbi Leo Jung ZT”L that explained some of the Torah’s rules for Jewish / non-Jewish relations in terms of reciprocity. For example (this may have been one of his examples), non-Jews routinely charge Jews interest on loans, so we are not obliged to forego charging interest on our loans to them.

  13. Here goes…

    If you really forgot about something done against you without consciously forgiving the person who did it, but today that thing was brought to your attention (let’s say you read about it), you might or might not forgive that person today.

    If you won’t forgive that person today, it very likely means that you forgot about it earlier without forgiving.

  14. Which mitzvos indicate G-d’s will regarding our interaction with non-Jews? It is my understanding that וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹך does not apply to non-Jews. Perhaps this aspect helps us further understand the motivations to our behaviour.

  15. Jaded, there’s forgetting, and there’s forgetting. Literally forgetting should, it seems — and your logic is good — encompass forgiving.

    But most forgetting is not quite that.

  16. If you forget, do you need to forgive ?
    If you delete a not so happy happenstance from your emotional hard drive why would there be a need to also forgive ?
    Taking apart “forgive” for a second :
    According to merriam webster definitions are as follows :
    A) to give up resentment of or claim to requital for b : to grant relief from payment of
    B) to cease to feel resentment against (an offender) :pardon
    intransitive verb : to grant forgiveness

    Do you need to need “give up the resentment” if you “cease to feel resentment” easily done by forgetting ?
    Why would there be a need for both definitions of “forgiveness” ?
    Would it be ok to achieve definition B or A through just forgetting .

    Also, there’s a spritiual slogan that sings something to the effect of “the way you relate to others G-d will relate to you” , if one is careful never to judge anyone would G-d in turn not judge him ? That should take care of any elul season concerns.

    Also regarding stepparents , what about the biological parent thats not married to the step parent?
    Why would the biological parent be extra careful about the step parent’s honor if the step parent married the biological parent’s ex ? And why would the honor stop once the biological parent dies ? Step parents have it so much harder than biological parents.I’m not even sure what the connection is with regards to the biological parent dying and the step parents honor ceasing to be a mandatory must honor issue.

  17. G-d is divine, therefore has to hold the righteous to a very high standard, and for example can’t forgive Moses for banging the rock, etc. We are not divine, and our friends are righteous to us, but we don’t have to hold them to a divine standard, so can forgive. If G-d forgives Mosheh, it’s not the relationship required, if we forgive, we reinvent the relationship.

  18. IIRC the Ahlter of Kelm posited that the only Mitzvah which should not/ cannot be done l’shem shomayim is וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ= “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” because we love ourselves sans commandment.

    To fullfill the mitzvah because of the explicit command in the Torah would be an intrinsic contradiction as it does not meet the conditipon of כָּמוֹךָ kamokha qualitatively as yourself.

  19. Bob- your last comment was profound . Had the command been v’ahavta l’ray-akha kamonee=“Love your neighbor as you love Me” it would be on par with a mother commanding her children to honor their step-father.

    The simile of kamokha= “like/as yourself” allows for/presumes self-love irrespective of Divine commandment. This IMO (thanks to you) is the beginning of bein adam l’kahvero as a distinct category. I need further contemplation to sharpen this concept.

  20. I’ve always liked Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s definition as a starting point:

    The definition of love is “the pleasure of identifying people with their virtues.”

    From the 48 ways piece on Love Humanity. And here’s a nice list of virtues to help us get started.

    Accepting / Accomplished / Adventurous / Agreeable / Altruistic / Ambitious / Appreciative / Articulate / Assertive / Attentive / Balanced / Brave / Calm / Caring / Cautious / Charismatic / Charitable / Cheerful / Compassionate / Confident / Conscientious / Consistent / Cooperative / Creative / Decisive / Dignified / Diplomatic / Easygoing / Efficient / Energetic / Enthusiastic / Expressive / Fair / Flexible / Forgiving / Friendly / Generous / Gentle / Handy / Hardworking / Healthy / Honest / Humble / Idealistic / Insightful / Knowledgeable / Logical / Loving / Loyal / Mature / Methodical / Moral / Neat / Open / Optimistic / Organized / Original / Patient / Persistent / Polite / Practical / Productive / Punctual / Realistic / Relaxed / Reliable / Scholarly / Self-assured / Sincere / Skillful / Spiritual / Sweet / Talented / Thrifty / Tolerant / Versatile / Warm / Wise

  21. Love is truly indefinable but I’ll have a go at it by providing some contrasts.

    Love is the feeling of tenderness and attraction based on the love recipients ma’aleh = positive quality as opposed to rakhamim=mercy which is the feeling of tenderness and attraction based on the mercy recipients khisaron = nagative quality , need or lack.

  22. Rabbi Schwartz, while you’re thinking about it, could you provides us with your working definition of love and the different loves possible between a man and himself, his neighbor and G-d.

  23. In regard to your first Teshuva question, from my understanding there are many levels at which Teshuva operates Selichah, Mechilah, Kaparah and Taharah and our general closeness to Hashem to name a few.

    What is the exact language of Chazal when they 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)”?

    My implied question is there is more to Teshuvah than Kaparah.

  24. We have a command to love our neighbors as ourselves

    But do we have a command to love ourselves? Is this presumed by the Commander of this mitzvah or subsumed in the verbiage of the mitzvah?

    Either way you may have provided me with an approach to answer my question. I need to think for a while and will bl”n articulate it later.

    Yasher Koyakh.

  25. I don’t understand Taamei HaMitzvos as the reason why Hashem wants us to do a mitzvos, but rather our understanding of why Hashem wants us to do a mitzvos. Having more than one reason is common in Taamei HaMitzvos and they can and often are all true from some perspective. By treating the Taamei HaMitzvos as absolutes and setting up strict categories you run into your categorization problem. (But I learn at Chofetz Chaim which would not be as focused on setting up a Brisker-like problem like the one you proposed ;-))

  26. We have a command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have no such command with respect to animals or objects. Anything we do as mitzvah towards a neighbor also takes on an aspect of this love.

  27. Bob wrote:

    Because our fellow has a Divine soul, our motivation to do HaShem’s will in interpersonal relations can’t be reduced to the level of “ethical treatment of animals and plants.”
    Nor can doing a Torah level melakha on Shabbos be reduced to the level of tiltul muktzah on Shabbos. I know that men are qualitatively different than plants and animals. Yet I continue to wonder if one persons mitzvah obligations to another are qualitatively different than his/her mitzvah obligations to plants and animals.

    As Mark wrote:

    At the next level we have Taamei HaMitzvos you have provided the fundamental Taamei HaMitzvah for WHY the RBS”O “wants” us to treat one another better, differently than we would a plant or an animal. Still if it all derives from His will is this a difference of degree or of kind? To beat the dead horse of my moshol; If my living formerly widowed mother wants me to accord respect and awe to her new husband above and beyond how I might’ve interacted with him before he met my mother I will do so. But this has nothing to do with my step father and everything to do with my mother. Of course, post-marriage, I treat him BETTER (or more to the point in a qualitatively different way) than I would another Jew, but this qualitative alteration derives from my relationship with my mother not with him. Is all of bein Odom L’khaveiro the same way?

    I appreciate the comments and response. I would love to see this “virtual Beis Midrash/Beis HaMusaar” continue and humbly suggest that my post contained several other points to ponder and not just this last one.

  28. I might be missing something in the question, but at the most fundamental level don’t we do every mitzvos because Hashem commanded and at that level all mitzvos are equivalent.

    At the next level we have Taamei HaMitzvos which is the reason/motivation/purpose of mitzvos. On this there can be different motivations or reasons for the mitzvos.

    The Maharal on the Perek 1, Mishna 2 in Pirkei Avos says that man’s purpose is to be good in three areas, good to himself (rise above his/her animal nature), good to others, and good in relation to Hashem. The distinction of Bein Adam L’Makon and Bein Adam L’Chavaro is an indication of whether a particular mitzvah focuses us on the good to others, or good to G-d category.

    So an answer to your question might be, we are doing the interpesonal mitzvos primarily because we have an *obligation* to become good in that area. G-d has commanded us to become good in all three areas, but a particular mitzvos is often focused on one of the areas.

  29. I agree…forget “human ethics”. How could Interpersonal Mitzvahs be completely seperate from All the other Mitzvot if humans have a divine soul and we are supposed to connect all Jewish souls to Hashem

  30. Rabbi Schwartz asked,

    “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.”

    Because our fellow has a Divine soul, our motivation to do HaShem’s will in interpersonal relations can’t be reduced to the level of “ethical treatment of animals and plants.” The consideration we extend to our fellow is motivated in large part by our honoring his/her Divine soul. So the either/or breaks down.

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