Last week, I spoke on the topic of forgiveness at the Manhattan JCC. During the Q&A that followed, a woman in the back raised her hand.
“Do we have to forgive?” she asked.
As I began my response, a mutual friend nudged her.
“Tell her the whole story,” she mouthed. She began again.
“I was the victim of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem a number of years back.” she said. The room dipped into attentive silence.
“Do I have to forgive terrorists? Forgive the men who tried to kill me?”
We spoke after the event and I got to hear a bit more about that day. Everyone around her died. She was the only one in her section of the bus who survived. Yet she was anything but the stereotype of a vengeful, hateful person.
The woman, Sarri Singer, is the founder of Strength to Strength, an organization that works “to bring victims of terrorism together globally in order to share their experiences and move forward with their lives despite the trauma they have been through.”
In a Huffington Post piece from 2013, Singer wrote:
Ten years ago somebody tried to murder me…Everything in my life changed on that day. I am proud to look back and know that I chose to fight hate with love and that I devote my life to peace, not revenge…Perhaps my most significant revelation is the importance of love and kindness; to combat hate with tenacity and courage. After surviving a terrorist attack, working to change the world is the only way I know how to live my life.
Not exactly what you might expect from a terror survivor. And from society’s vantage point, one might never associate the courageous survivor with the woman who asked the question: It’s not politically correct to even think of withholding forgiveness. I deeply respected her courage to ask the question. It was presented without malice or agenda. She simply wanted to know the answer.
Here’s some of what I shared with her.
When a person asks you for forgiveness, you’re obligated to forgive immediately.
However, implicit in the above statement is that the person has to ask for forgiveness. And possibly more than once. The Torah understands that forgiving takes humility and work. It may not happen first time round. So G-d requires that we repeatedly ask for forgiveness.
In the words of Maimonides:
But transgressions between man and his fellow, such as hurting his fellow, or cursing his fellow, or stealing from him, etc, those are never forgiven until he gives his fellow what he owes him, and [his fellow] is appeased. Even if he returned the money he owed his [fellow], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if he only perturbed his fellow verbally, he must make amends and meet with him until he forgives him. If his fellow does not wish to forgive him, he should bring a line of three people who are friends with him and they will approach him and ask [forgiveness] from him. If he does not give in to them, he must bring people a second and third time.
Only then does he say: If he still does not give in, they should leave him alone, and that person who did not forgive — he is the sinner.
Maimonides communicates the great lengths we have to go to in order to repair a wrong. He also tells us that there are limits on asking for forgiveness. There’s something not quite right on the inside if you can’t forgive. But — and it’s a big but — you’re only held accountable for not forgiving another person if the person who wronged you has tried to make it right.
Not that you can’t forgive someone until they apologize— but you certainly don’t have to. And sometimes it’s even inappropriate.
In short, one has an obligation to forgive immediately:
• When someone apologizes and asks you to forgive them.
But there are a few exceptions. One does not have an immediate obligation to forgive:
• If they still owe you money, the debt must first be paid (They have to make amends).
• If you feel that you can benefit the offender and motivate him or her to learn a lesson and improve their actions (This has to be done with very pure intentions. Your heart has to be clear of any hatred towards the other. It’s only at the external level that you appear not to be forgiving).
• If the offended knows that the offense will most likely be repeated, and therefore the request for forgiveness is not a genuine one (The demand for genuine regret runs deep. In fact, Maimonides teaches, “Anyone who verbalizes their confession without resolving in their heart to abandon sin can be compared to a person who immerses themselves in a ritual (purification) pool while holding the carcass of a lizard (which causes spiritual impurity) in hand.”).
• If the case in question is of someone having spread a false rumor and made it public knowledge, thereby ruining the reputation of the individual.
With this in mind, I told Singer: We’re taught that if a person can’t bring themselves to apologize — repeatedly and in public — then they haven’t yet rectified the wrong or erased the damage. As such forgiveness is not demanded. I don’t think the men who tried to blow you up regret their deed. To the contrary, they probably regret that they missed you! And so no, you’re not obligated to forgive them.
And I could see that this woman who truly lives by the words in her piece, “Perhaps my most significant revelation is the importance of love and kindness; to combat hate with tenacity and courage,” was comforted by this truth.
You can’t be kinder than G-d. So don’t try.
What are your thoughts on all this? And what other questions do you have?
I imagine there are some strong opinions out there. Let’s dialogue about it.