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Torah Sparks

June 28, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 13:1 - 15:41 (Hertz, p. 623; Etz Hayim, p. 840)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 14:8 - 15:7 (Hertz, p. 626; Etz Hayim, p. 845)
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 - 24 (Hertz, p. 635; Etz Hayim, p. 856)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Forgiveness

"And the Lord said to Moses, 'How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they.'

But Moses said to the Lord. 'Therefore, I pray, let my Lord's forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, 'The Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.' Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.' And the Lord said, 'I pardon, as you have asked.'" (Numbers 14:11-20)


  1. "To walk in God's ways" (Deuteronomy 11:22). These are the ways of the Holy One: "gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon." (Exodus 34:6). This means that just as God is gracious, compassionate, and forgiving, you too must be gracious, compassionate, and forgiving. (Sifre - Devarim, Ekev)
  2. If you have done your fellow a slight wrong, let it be a serious matter in your eyes; but if you have done your fellow much good, let it be a trifle in your eyes. And if your fellow has done you a slight favor, let it be a great thing in your eyes; if your fellow has done you a great evil, let it be a little thing in your eyes. (Avot D'Rabbi Natan, Chapter 41)
  3. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done you, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? (Ben Sira 28:2-4)
  4. What if someone hurts you and begs forgiveness, but you just don't want to give it? Perhaps you think their plea is not fully sincere, you are still hurting too much, or maybe you just want to inflict a little suffering on the person who hurt you. But there is a pragmatic reason for readily granting forgiveness; it is one of those acts for which Jewish tradition promises a generous and unique reward from God: "Rabba said Whose sin is forgiven? The sin of him who forgives sins committed against himself or herself" (Megillah 28a). In other words, if you are merciful to those who offend you, then God will be merciful to you when you offend Him. I understand this talmudic teaching as a kind of divine common sense. If you are unforgiving to those who have offended you, then you forfeit the right to ask God to treat you with the mercy that you are unwilling to extend to others. Conversely, if you are compassionate, that entitles you to a greater portion of God's compassion. (But what if you are too angry to forgive?) Then you should work on yourself. Try to enter into the other person's mind and imagine why she might have acted as she did. Did she deceive you in business? Perhaps she felt under such financial pressure that she didn't think clearly or fairly. Did he betray a secret? Maybe he told others out of a desperate need to seem important. (Joseph Telushkin, "The Book of Jewish Values")
  5. It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not forgive. Rather one should be easy to pacify and hard to arouse to anger. And when the offending party comes to ask forgiveness, one should grant forgiveness with a full heart and in good spirit. And even if the person caused great pain or repeatedly caused offense, one should not take vengeance. For that is not becoming of the Jewish people. (Maimonides Laws of Repentance 2:10)
  6. "Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me-whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration. May no man be punished because of me. May it be your will, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, my Rock and my Redeemer". (Meditation before the bedtime Shema in Artscroll Prayerbook page 289)
  7. The embarrassing secret is that many of us are reluctant to forgive. We nurture grievances because that makes us feel morally superior. Withholding forgiveness gives us a sense of power, often power over someone who otherwise leaves us feeling powerless. The only power we have over them is the power to remain angry at them. At some level, we enjoy the role of being the long-suffering aggrieved party. The Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible makes a distinction between murder, which is to be punished severely, and accidental manslaughter, which is treated more leniently. But how do we know if a fatal injury was caused deliberately or accidentally? Deuteronomy says (Deuteronomy 4:42) if the person who caused the injury had not been feuding with the victim over the previous two or three days, we can assume it was an accident. Commenting on that verse, the sages of the Talmud offer a fascinating psychological insight. They say that the normal life span of a quarrel is two or three days. If a person hurts or offends you, you are entitled to be upset with him for that long. (We are talking about routine arguments and misunderstandings here, not major offenses.) If the bitter feelings extend into a fourth day, it is because you are choosing to hold on to them. You are nursing the grievance, keeping it on artificial life support, instead of letting it die a natural death. (Harold Kushner in "How Good Do We Have to Be?)
  8. Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past, by old grievances that do not permit life to proceed with new business. Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another's control. If one does not forgive, then one is controlled by the other's initiatives, and is locked into a sequence of action, a response of outrage and revenge. The present is overwhelmed and devoured by the past. Those who do not forgive are those who are least capable of changing the circumstances of their lives. In this sense, forgiveness is a shrewd and practical strategy for a personàto pursue for forgiveness frees the forgiver. (Time magazine quoted in Dov Peretz Elkins' "Moments of Transcendence")

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Rabbi Harold Schulweiss once said that the purpose of prayer is not the adulation of God but the imitation of God. It isn't the admiration of God but the emulation of God's ways. That is concept behind the source from Sifre.

Reconciliation is difficult. It requires heroism and sacrifice. What is it that prevents us from being more forgiving? Is it the emotional satisfaction in claiming the role of victim? Is it power? Is it a sense of moral superiority? How can we let go of that incessant need to judge others? How do we move out of the role of victim and see beyond their actions to the person who is acting? How do we give up our ideas of being better than others and see ourselves as equals and co-learners? How do we make sure that we don't cede all control to the one that offended us and allow him/her to trap us in the past?

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