Between Mechila (Forgiveness) and Shtar Mechila (Letter/Document of Forgiveness)
Moses Maimonides in Hilkhot Teshuvah (The Laws of Repentance) Chapter 2 writes that repentance and Yom Kippur can only atone for the sins between man and God, but as to the sins between man and man—“someone who injures a colleague, steals from him or the like, will not be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.”
“[If] the person [who was wronged] does not want to forgive him, he (the offender) brings a group of three friends and approaches with them and requests [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If [the wronged party still] does not want to forgive him, he need not pursue [the matter further] and the one who didn’t forgive is considered the sinner.”
Every year I read these laws and think whether I have really forgiven? Was my forgiveness to my friends, to my husband, to my employer wholehearted? Did I really let go of all my anger?
It is well-known that the greatest harm can happen between man and wife. The stronger the connection, the grater the intimacy, the greater the risk of being hurt. The greater the expectation, the greater the harm and disappointment.
I think about the little insults/slights between man and wife. The husband who promised to come home early to help put the kids to bed and stayed late at work “for important things that couldn’t be pushed off.” He did apologize and went back to his schedule. Did his wife truly forgive him?
The husband who for the tenth time forgot his wife’s birthday or anniversary and spent time with the guys while she waited at home, disappointed. Did she really forgive? Will she cry when the painful incident is raised?
A close friend told me: “I follow what the Torah says. I don’t hold a grudge. I don’t insult back. But I do remember…”
Yes, her husband said sorry once, even twice. He apologized and she forgave him. And everything seemed fine.
But whenever she remembers the insulting slight, she is flooded with hot tears of anger and insult.
Maimonides says very clearly:”…until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him”.
”There is a need to repair the wrongdoing in action and to appease the colleague with words, with feeling, to remove the anger and insult from his heart.
I think about G., a former client whom I represented at Yad L’isha, an ultra-Orthodox woman whose husband physically and emotionally abused her.
Claims were brought; there were discussions; a verdict was given, and finally the two sides reached the final stage : the get (Jewish writ of divorce). The night before the granting of the get, my phone rang at home. The husband’s lawyer was on the phone. “Did something happen? ‘ I asked in trepidation. Just that they don’t sabotage everything. G. has been waiting for this moment. . .
“No,” he answered. “Just one minor thing. One small document that the father of the husband wants her to sign.” I went into fight mode. What now? “There is the small matter of the shtar mehila (letter of forgiveness). I am requesting that G. sign the shtar mehila that she forgives her husband. Without her signature, he will not agree to give her the get tomorrow.
I remembered Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. Is this the forgiveness that Maimonides was talking about? Would she really be forgiving him by signing the shtar mehila? All she wanted was the get. Did he appease her? Did he return all that he stole from her? Her mental health, the children’s tranquility, the years-long unpaid alimony?! In signing the shtar mehila, was everything now taken care of and peace restored?
NO. To all the husbands who kept their wives agunot (halakhic term for the woman who is “chained” to her marriage) — who abused them, who disappeared, and left them on their own with the children to cope with abandonment, childrearing, and endless legal procedures?? No shtar mehila will help them. “Our sages stated, “A man must be careful never to offend his wife because women are sensitive and prone to tears. “
The tears of insult, pain, despair, and suffering. Until the husband comes and asks to be forgiven and confesses his sins, there is no real forgiveness. Not on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur.
And, as Maimonides wrote, the sinner is not forgiven even after the harmed person dies, even in the grave. The tears of the abandoned women, the living widows, their tears ascend, higher and higher. And as we know: The gates of tears are never locked.