Jonathan Muskat

Does the Torah Believe in Turning the Other Cheek?

You know that person, whom you can’t stand.  That person who was nasty to you.  That person who is emotionally abusive every time you see him.  What do we do about that person, considering that we are in the middle of the Aseret Ymei Teshuva?  The Aseret Ymei Teshuva, being a time of reflection, is an opportunity to reflect upon our relationship with God and upon relationships with others.

The Aseret Ymei Teshuva is a time to make peace with both God and with each other.  We ask God for forgiveness and we also ask each other for forgiveness.  For many of us, it’s easier to ask God for forgiveness than to confront another human being, swallow our pride and offer a heartfelt apology.  If that was all that the Torah demanded of us, that would be difficult enough.  However, the Torah demands more.  The Torah requires us to forgive others who sincerely ask for forgiveness and the Shulchan Aruch records the halachot of asking for forgiveness specifically in the context of the halachot of Yom Kippur.  Even though there is a mitzvah to forgive another all year long, there is a specific advantage to forgiving others on Yom Kippur because the Midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer explains that on Yom Kippur we act like angels.  We are barefoot, we don’t eat, we stand throughout the day and we are at peace with each other, just like the angels.  For 24 hours, on Yom Kippur, we attempt to be angelic and that includes being at peace with each other and we prepare for that by trying to foster peace, even if we were wronged.

It is difficult to forgive other people who have wronged us.  First, it is human nature that when I make a mistake, I tend to be kind to myself.  I will attribute my own wrongdoing to forgivable external causes such as fatigue, innocent misunderstanding or some other outside force that will absolve myself of guilt or feelings of responsibility for harming others.  However, when I am hurt by another, my behavioral default setting is to attribute the wrongdoing to an internal flaw in that individuals, such as insensitivity, laziness or carelessness.  This natural tendency to let ourselves off the hook and explain away our own flaws while dealing with others in a far harsher manner can fuel anger, conflict and difficulty in forgiving others.  Perhaps the way to counteract that feeling is “v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” of treating others as ourselves.  Just as we would often attribte our own wrongdoing to an external factor, we should do the same to a neighbor, especially when that neighbor sincerely asks for forgiveness.  Instead of initially being judgmental, perhaps we should develop a mindset of curiosity about what might have let the other person act in such a way that caused you harm and this mindset can promote an atmosphere of forgiveness.

But the Torah demands more.  If someone wronged us and does not apologize, we must confront that person instead of harboring feelings of hatred internally.  When the Torah states in Parshat Kedoshim that we must not hate our brother in our hearts and that we must rebuke him and not bear upon him a sin, the Ramban explains that these three directives are three parts of a singular response when someone wrongs us.  We shouldn’t hate that individual and harbor those feelings internally.  Rather, we must rebuke the individual so that he will apologize or he will repent so that you will no longer bear ill will in your heart towards him.

But what if you approach the person and he doesn’t apologize?  Are we required to turn the other cheek?  It seems from the halakhic sources that we are required to confront and rebuke someone who has harmed us, but we are only required to forgive that person if he has sincerely apologized.  As such, we are not required to turn the other cheek.  In order for there to be true reconciliation between two people if one has harmed another, the perpetrator of the harm must apologize, and he must do sincerely, shamefully and he must appease the person whom he has harmed.  Because if he doesn’t, then there cannot be a true reconciliation.  The wrongdoing caused a breach of trust and this trust must be restored before the relationship can be restored.  Forgiving someone who wronged me and didn’t ask for forgiveness may give that person the wrong message, that his behavior is excused, that he can verbally abuse me, that he can harm me and then he can expect me to turn the other cheek and embrace him again in a strong faithful relationship.  I can give the wrongdoer every opportunity to recognize that what he did was wrong but I should not send him the wrong message.

And yet, many Jews come to shul before Kol Nidrei begins and recite a Tefillah Zakkah, a prayer composed by Rav Avraham Danzig to usher in Yom Kippur.  In the context of this prayer, we make a declaration that we forgive everyone.  Does that mean that we adopt the “turn the other cheek” doctrine, that even if someone harms us and doesn’t ask for forgiveness, we should just let bygones be bygones?

It seems to me that it is admirable to forgive someone who has harmed us, not in front of the other person, because that will send the wrong message, but in front of God, in prayer.  On the one hand, I cannot have a true relationship with that person until he sincerely asks for forgiveness, but I do not bear any more hatred towards that person.  The Rambam writes that a person should always wipe away hurt and that he should be among those that get insulted but don’t insult.  This is an ambitious goal, but this is the true goal of the Yamim Noraim.  After we internalize the anger and sadness that we feel from being harmed by another, we should try to see the offender through the prism of empathy and understanding of what extenuating factors might have contributed to his offense.  It means that I may not have a relationship with that person anymore.  It means that I may not expressly forgive the person to his face unless he sincerely asks for forgiveness.  But it also means that in our hearts there is no anger.  It means that we recite Tefillah Zakkah will a full heart.

You know that person, whom you can’t stand.  That person who was nasty to you.  That person who is emotionally abusive every time you see him.  What do we do about that person, considering that we are in the middle of the Aseret Ymei Teshuva?   We transform ourselves into angels on Yom Kippur.  We harbor no ill will towards that person and we truly become one community standing before God.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.