The Challenge of Forgiveness

We are now within the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. As part of this process we have been reciting the Slichot (penitentiary prayers), and will continue to do so through Yom Kippur. These prayers focus upon our request for Divine forgiveness, which of course peaks on Yom Kippur. Of course our Divine forgiveness is dependent upon achieving prior forgiveness from our fellow human beings (Mishna Yoma 8:9). This may seem inconsistent with the very public nature of these prayers. How are we to understand the dynamics of this process and the interdependence of these various factors? Let us examine the words of three great thinkers.

 The Philosopher Emanuel Levinas in his Talmudic reading Toward the Other, places a strong emphasis upon my dependence upon my fellow man in achieving forgiveness and hence personal redemption.

God is, in a sense…the absolutely other – and nonetheless my standing with this God depends only on myself. The instrument of forgiveness is in my hands. On the other hand, my neighbor, my brother, man, infinitely less other than the absolutely other, is in a certain way more than God: to obtain his forgiveness on the day of Atonement I must first succeed in appeasing him. What if he refuses? As soon as two are involved everything is in danger. The other can refuse forgiveness and leave me forever unpardoned…It is thus a very serious matter to offend another man. Forgiveness depends on him. One finds himself in his hands. There can be no forgiveness that the guilty party has not sought! The guilty party must recognize his fault. The offended party must want to receive the entreaties of the offending party. Further, no person can forgive if forgiveness has not been asked him by the offender, if the guilty party has not tried to appease the offended…There are two conditions for forgiveness: the good will of the offended party and the full awareness of the offender. But the offender is in essence unaware…In essence, forgiveness would be impossible….

I am perplexed by Levinas’ statement that one cannot forgive if forgiveness has not been requested.  There is a widespread custom on the eve of Yom Kippur for every Jew to sincerely state that he forgives all others, even if they have not requested forgiveness (for example in the Tefila Zaka prayer). This is seen as a crucial stage in communal absolution as it enables the entire people to enter the Holy Day without the weight of interpersonal enmity weighing us down. And why is forgiveness ultimately so difficult to obtain? I believe that what Levinas means when he states that the offender is in essence unaware, is that we can never be fully cognizant of just how deeply our negative words or actions can affect others and the lingering trauma that they may cause. How than can we properly ask forgiveness? In the last analysis Levinas puts the full weight of his concern upon the question will I receive forgiveness and the metaphysical limbo that I will remain in if the offended party refuses to release me from my moral debt to him.

My teacher Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, in his essay HaSlicha v’haChemla), took a very different approach. His concern was not so much regarding the question of will I be forgiven, but rather will I be able to forgive. He writes:

We tend to think that the main effort of these days is regarding our request for forgiveness…however…the significant question is not if others will forgive us, but rather if we are capable of forgiving…of opening up to compassion. All year long we build up resentment and negative feelings that dirty and poison our inner and outer worlds. Will we succeed in purifying them? To forgive means to appease, to come to terms with…we feel that we have been wronged…and these feelings slowly fill us with resentment towards the world, to those around us, and eventually to ourselves…and towards HaShem.

We can already see that for Rav Shagar, Levinas’ question, while certainly significant, is of secondary importance. For him the existential question is not about the other’s hold over me, but rather about the bind that I place myself in. By not being able to truly forgive and accept the other I am primarily harming myself. But Rav Shagar also addresses my interdependence with my fellow:

When I am able to forgive another and accept him for who he is, and understand the fact that he can’t really be different…I release him from his guilt. The act of pardoning unties the ropes that hold us together…the one who forgives is liberated no less than the one who receives pardon…the countenance that we shine is the revelation of our compassion to the other and of HaShem’s compassion towards us…it is enlightening…and in this looking we find redemption.  According to the Ari this is the secret of Rosh HaShana.

Rav Yosef  Dov Soloveitchik, in his classic Al HaTeshuva, devotes many pages to a detailed analysis of the concept of slicha, both its Halachic mechanism and its philosophical underpinnings. However, he does not deal directly with the interpersonal aspect we have so far addressed, and places his focus more on the question of the individual vs. the community, in relation to HaShem.

The “Slichot” have a special order, a unique quality and essence; Slichot are a privilege that was given to the community, as community…the individual does not have the power on Yom Kippur to request that the Master of the Universe grant him atonement…for with what merit can an individual approach his Creator with words of appeasement.

For Rav Soloveitchik, the only solution to this quandary is to throw one’s lot in with the community of Israel: The individual confesses with a feeling of a lack of security, of the depression and despair that accompanies sin…not so the confession of Knesset Yisrael…their confession is recited with confidence and even joy…the individual does not sing “Al Chet”. He cries during “Al Chet” – not so the community, the community doesn’t request atonement; they demand it. And what is the nature of this forgiveness that we request from HaShem? Rav Soloveitchik explains:

In addition to pardoning – Yom Kippur also has an element of forgiveness and atonement – for sin doesn’t only demand retribution, it also defiles our soul…the function of teshuva is to purify one’s personality…this is not “pardoning”, but “forgiveness”‘ and it is a metaphysical process to purify and to sanctify the metaphysical personality.

While I am not certain if Rav Soloveitchik and Levinas read each other or not, Rav Shagar is certainly in dialogue with both of them. Ultimately, even he, so focused upon my need to purify myself of the anger and resentment that I harbor to others, is also aware of my stance before HaShem as part of the faith community:

The highest form of Teshuva, that which reaches HaShem Himself, is that of the community’ that of one united being…and that unity is achieved by way of equality…in HaShem’s eyes no one is greater than anyone else…the covenant is not with the private person, but with all of the Jewish People…on the other cannot uplift himself to the spiritual heights of communal salvation without personal spiritual teshuva…but even so, the feeling of unity is a precondition for any progress.

May we all be blessed with the ability to forgive and with the gift of being forgiven. May all our sins, both interpersonal and ritual, be fully atoned for. May we as individuals and all of the Jewish People be redeemed in the year of 5774. May it be a year of great holiness and joy for the entire universe.

Shana Tova u’Metuka, Gmar Chatima Tova!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. He is the author of 'Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals'. Many of his articles can be accessed at