The notion of mechila speaks to our very humanity. The imperative to forgive, even when absolutely required, does not come easy. All the more so, when we wish to aspire for a higher standard. And yet, aspire we must. While there may be clear-cut instances where we need not forgive, as we have seen in the case of slander, and in the behavior of Sara Imeinu, too often we hide behind excuses to avoid letting go of our grievances. Not only do we ignore the model of Avraham Avinu, we easily fall into the trap of flagrant violations of biblical prohibitions of nekima and netira – vengeance and grudge-bearing. Rather than giving others the benefit of the doubt, we ascribe malicious intent without bothering to check out the facts. And then we come to Yom Kippur and expect Hashem to see the best in us. When we stand before Yom Kippur we cannot afford to fool the Ribono Shel Olam – or ourselves.
If we genuinely want to be worthy of Hashem’s forgiveness, then it behooves us to see how we can bring ourselves to forgive. As the gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17a) says, “hama’avir al midosav ma’avirin lo al kal pesha’av – one who is less exacting and demanding toward others, will merit that Hashem will also be less exacting.”
What often stands as barrier to granting that stands in the way of granting mechila is seeing the offense for more than it really is. In explaining how one can avoid taking revenge, the Rambam (Middos 7:7) explains that for people of understanding, most slights are really trivial and need not call for retaliation. Yom Kippur is a day that reframes the priorities of life, and helps us to see things for what they are. Having a broader vision about the fragility of life and purpose of creation can inject us with a healthy dose of humility and enable us to overlook many wrongs that may seem very important in the moment but really don’t matter from the broader perspective.
Another reason why we often have a hard time forgiving others, is because we see ourselves as being masters of our own realities – in control of the events of our lives. To some extent, this attitude stems from a lack of emuna that our life’s experiences are a reflection of hashgacha pratis and are Hashem’s way of communicate messages to us. This idea is suggested by Sefer Ha’Chinuch as the basis for overcoming the urge to take revenge and bear grudges. Yom Kippur is a time that allows us to feel a natural connection with the Ribono Shel Olam and see all that happens to us – including life’s setbacks which seem to flow from other people’s conduct as merely messages from Hashem. The more we deepen our sense of emuna in hashagacha pratis, the easier it becomes to bring ourselves to genuinely forgive.
There is an additional strategy that can motivate us to move past our grudges, and extend mechila toward those who have wronged us – the ability to connect with the humanity of the one who offended us, and to recognize that, in a very real sense, we are all part of one family. The Yerushalami in Nedarim (9:4) offers a parable to illustrate how one can avoid the impulse to take revenge: Imagine someone who is cutting meat. As he cuts the meat with the knife in his right hand, he gets carried away and wounds his left hand. It is inconceivable for the left hand to take revenge against the right hand. After all, they are part of the same organism. That should be our perspective on our fellow Jews – we are part of one family.
The sense of the unity of lal Yisrael being part of one family is best symbolized by the notion of shevatim – each with a distinct path, but all as part of a larger collective, embodied by Knesses Yisrael. Indeed, in the Yom Kippur liturgy we refer repeatedly to Hashem as “machalan leshivtei Yeshurun – a forgiver of the tribes of Yeshurun”. Why is Hashem referred to by this designation? And what is this juxtaposed with the appellation “salchan le’Yisrael”?
The Meshech Chochma explains that “salchan le’yisrael” alludes to aveiros between Man and G-d – all of which are rooted in the chet ha’eigel. The second expression – “machalan le’shivtei Yeshurun” – refers to sins being Adam Lachaveiro. Why? Because every sin “bein adam lachavero” has its roots in the sin of Mechiras Yosef, carried out by the Shivtei Kah – the sons of Yaakov Avinu, who sold Yosef into slavery. The very symbol of unity – the notion of shevatim – was put to the test early in our history, and led to inter-personal strife, and almost bloodshed.
When reading the story of Mechiras Yosef, one gets the impression that all worked out in the end and lived happily ever after. However, Rabbeinu Bachyei, at the end of Parshas Vayechi, says something terrifying. He points out that while we find the brothers expressing remorse to Yosef for having wronged him, and while we find Yosef comforting them and reassuring them that all is well and that he will provide for them, we never find Yosef actually extending mechila. Somehow, there was no full closure. Therefore, says Rabbeinu Bechayei, the sin remained unresolved – and came back to haunt us centuries later in the form of the asara harugei malchus – the ten martyrs, which is also alluded to in the Yom Kippur liturgy.
Yom Kippur is also a day meant to healing that rift. There is a passage in the Machzor, just after reciting Seder Avoda that enumerates a list of halachos which characterize the day of Yom Kippur:
Yom assur achilah, yom assur bi’shesiyah, yom assur bi’rechitzah, yom assur bi’sichah, yom assur bi’tashmish ha’mittah, yom assur bi’ne’ilas ha’sandal
These are specific restrictions which are unique to Yom Kippur. Then, we continue:”Yom simas ahavah ve’rei’us, yom azivas kinah ve’sacharus- A day of establishing love and friendship; a day of forsaking jealousy and competition.”
Apparently, Jewish unity is as defining an aspect of Yom Kippur as are the basic restrictions. On Yom Kippur, we parallel the angels not only in our ability to refrain from earthly pleasures, but also in our ability to epitomize shalom – as it says “oseh shalom binromav”. In explaining the basis for asking mechila before Yom Kippur, the Tur (OC 606) cites a Midrash Pirkei de’Rebbi Eliezer, which states “Mah mal’achei ha’hares beineihem kach Yisrael B’Yom HaKippurim.” The Rav also explained that reconciling with one another before Yom Kippur is necessary because the nature of the kapara extended on Yom Kippur is not an individual kapara but a collective kapara – as we say at the outset of the day, “ve’nislach le’chal adas bnei Yisrael”. In order to be worthy of that special gift of Divine forgiveness, we have to join together as one people in a spirit of genuine unity and reconciliation.
As we beseech the Ribbono Shel Olam for His forgiveness, may we all mirror that spirit of behavior in our own lives – not just looking at the technical halachic requirements, but connecting to the essence of the midos of the Ribono shel olam, the melech mochel ve’solei’ach. May we use these precious days to shed old grudges, trivialize old slights, see all that happens around us as messages from Hashem to guide us to be better people, reach out to others, love our neighbor as ourselves. In this zechus, may we all achieve reconciliation with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and may we all be worthy of all of His blessings in the coming year – nachas and good health, prosperity and productivity in all of our endeavors.
Adapted from a Shiur given by Rabbi Adler on Sep. 14, 2010 entitled “Kinus Teshuva Drasha 5771- Mechila in Human and Halachic Terms: How Can I Ever Forgive You? Can I Not?”. The Shiur is accessible with Mekorot at http://www.yutorah.com/lectures/lecture.cfm/748933/rabbi-elchanan-adler/kinus-teshuva-drasha-5771-mechila-in-human-and-halachic-terms-how-can-i-ever-forgive-you-can-i-not-/.
Rabbi Elchanan Adler has served since 1998 as a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he occupies the Eva, Morris and Jack Rubin Chair in Rabbinics.