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Apology and forgiveness — what are the parameters?

The first week in February has been declared i4give week in certain communities in Australia.

Many religious Jews make a solemn declaration every night before they retire. This declaration precedes the bedtime Shema (ArtScroll Siddur p 289).  The words are: I hereby pardon anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me, whether physically, monetarily or emotionally … and may no-one be punished on my account.

Of course, true forgiveness lies within the heart. While one is overcome with anger or resentment, such words will be empty shells and will achieve nothing. Yet when the bitterness fades a little, these same words spoken consistently and firmly may begin to evoke a stirring within a person’s soul. After all, the Hebrew word for prayer, tefila, at root, means “speaking to one’s inner (better) self”.

On Yom Kippur especially, our pardon of others is like a master-key releasing G-D’s forgiveness of us (Yoma 87b). Mindful of that, as we approach Kol Nidrei we go further. We declare that we extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has sinned against me, whether physically or monetarily …or who has gossiped about me or even slandered me (Tefila Zaka, ArtScroll Machzor p. 40. As the declaration goes on to say, this in no way precludes us from pursuing a just monetary claim through Beit Din). And we conclude: Just as I forgive everyone, so may You grant me favor in the eyes of all so that they will grant me complete forgiveness.

These are noble words. Yet they constitute a second-best. The choicest way in Judaism of eliciting and extending peace and forgiveness is to directly approach a person whom we have wronged – or who we believe has wronged us – and (in the first case) sincerely apologize or (in the second case) afford the other person the opportunity to say sorry.

This may not always be possible for a number of reasons. Even where it is feasible, it may call for an immense investment of time, emotional energy and introspection, not to mention suppression of ego and pride. Articulating the words “I am sorry” or “I forgive you” with true sincerity, up close and personal, can indeed be a singularly challenging and humbling task. It can also be uniquely cathartic and provide a full measure of healing to both parties.

However, in recent years, “sorry” has also become a political buzzword, bandied around with startling ease.

Fourteen years ago this month, after winning the Australian Federal Election, PM Kevin Rudd delivered his famous “sorry” speech to Australia’s indigenous peoples.  We have also witnessed in recent times the remarkable spectacle of leading church spokesmen apologizing and, with unprecedented humility, asking the forgiveness of world Jewry for the calumnies, persecutions and tortures inflicted on our nation these past two thousand years.

Is the word ‘sorry’ an appropriate word to say in such contexts? Are the Aborigines being ungracious if they look askance at such gestures as sorry-books and sorry-days? Are we Jews being hard-hearted and stiff-necked if, in the face of its spoken gestures of contrition, we fail to absolve the church for its heinous acts of the past?  Is it at all meaningful or even possible to make a vicarious apology for sins or crimes of previous generations to persons against whose ancestors the crimes or sins were committed?

The eighth chapter of the Talmudic tractate Baba Kama deals with issues of choveil, wounding and maiming. Five categories of liability are derived from the Torah, four of them from last week’s Sidra. The five are: injury (see Ex. 21:24), physical pain (21:25) healing costs (21:19), loss of time (21:19) and emotional pain (Deut. 25:11-12).

The Mishnah, as we would expect, having made it crystal-clear that ‘wound for wound’ (21:25) means monetary compensation, details every aspect of monetary restitution required on all five counts listed above for various categories of people.  Then suddenly in chapter 7 we find the following: Although he pays him, he is not forgiven for it until he seeks pardon from him … And how do we know that the injured party should not be cruel (and withhold pardon)? Because it says (Gen.20:17) “Abraham prayed to G-D and G-D healed Avimelech” (who had kidnapped Sarah – thus Abraham demonstrated his willingness to forgive even one who had abducted his wife).

Rambam (Hilkhot Choveil 5:9) expands further. “One who injures another (mazik be-gufo) is unlike one who damages his property (mazik mamono); in the latter case as soon as he has made monetary restitution he is pardoned. If, on the other hand, he wounded (chaval) his fellow, although he pays him on all five liability-counts (as he indeed must) he does not receive atonement …and his sin is not pardoned until he requests and receives pardon from his victim. The victim should not be cruel by withholding forgiveness; this is not the way of the seed of Israel. But as soon as the offender has asked forgiveness a first time and (certainly) a second time and the victim knows he is truly repentant, he should pardon him – and all who hasten to forgive are praiseworthy and beloved of the Sages.” In Hilchot Teshuva, (2:9), Rambam extends the requirement of asking pardon to one who robs another and derives benefit from the stolen goods causing his victim anguish.

What, though, of one whose victim has died? Rambam makes it clear (Teshuva 2:11) that monetary restitution should be made to the heirs a generation (or several) down the track. However, as far as asking pardon is concerned, Rambam pointedly does not make that an option. Instead, he states (ibid.) that the offender must supplicate publicly at the victim’s grave.

It would seem that, by implication, the requirement of monetary restitution to the heirs of the victim could apply not only to the offender himself but also to the heirs (inheritors) of the offender.

Nor is it difficult to extrapolate fiscally from the sphere of the individual to that of society. After all, the wealth of a nation survives its administrators. The notions of transgenerational Holocaust ‘compensation’ and Aboriginal lands restitution would appear sound from the Torah standpoint.

Moreover, even the concept of transgenerational national confession to G-D has a Torah precedent. Aval anachnu va-avoteinu chatanu, “but we and our ancestors have sinned” is the phrase with which we introduce the vidui on Yom Kippur. We will not be held accountable for our ancestors’ misdeeds so long as we renounce them.

However, a major question is: can the child of a victim extend vicarious pardon for wrongs done to his parent? Do the descendants of a generation of victims have the right or the ability to grant forgiveness for crimes perpetrated on their grandfathers and grandmothers?

From a Torah standpoint as well as from an intuitive standpoint, it would appear not.

Maybe for this reason, one may be excused for expressing the view that while between perpetrator and victim the words “sorry” and “I forgive”, when uttered sincerely, are vital and irreplaceable words of balm and healing, in a political, abstract, trans-generational context, “sorry” can be the most inadequate word in the English language.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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