Forgive and Forget

Q. My friend is terribly resentful of her father, who is verbally abusive. How can I convince her to put the resentment behind her and forgive him? It’s clear that his attitude is due to a psychological problem.

A. It’s true that giving people good advice can be a very important mitzvah. The Torah tells us, “You shall surely reprove your fellow” (Leviticus 19:17). And the Talmud tells us that reproof is so important that a person who fails to reprove others can be held responsible for their actions. The purpose of this commandment is to fulfill what is stated in the very next verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we truly love someone, we concern ourselves with their spiritual well being by helping them improve their ways.

Yet the rabbis of the Talmud also warned us to be very careful how we fulfill this mitzvah. Two thousand years ago, the great Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria stated, “I don’t believe there is anybody in this generation who is really capable of giving reproof.”

Both approaches are hinted at in the verse itself. The verse states, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart. Surely reprove your fellow, and don’t bear sin towards him.” Often the two admonitions reinforce each other: Don’t bear sin towards your fellow human being by allowing him to continue in his ways, rather you should reprove him. But these two directives may also be in tension: while we should be willing to give reproof, we have to also be careful not to sin against anybody by causing unnecessary shame or embarrassment.

The key to applying the Torah’s guidance is the careful diagnosis of the problem. If the person is following a destructive course of action because of a lack of knowledge or because of brazenness, then it can be very helpful to gently provide the needed information and to make clear that we all need to improve our behavior. But if the root of the problem is that a person lacks the emotional strength to carry out the ideal course of action, then criticism is probably counterproductive. What is needed is support and encouragement.

Let’s apply this key to your friend’s situation. The emotional strength needed to forgive someone who owes us love and affection but instead gives us cruelty is beyond the capability of the average person. From your description, it seems likely that the best way to help her is to provide understanding and sympathy for her difficult situation, not unsolicited advice. In your case, it may be that it is exactly by avoiding criticism that you will attain the most perfect fulfillment of the Torah’s commandment.

While the usual translation of the operative word in this commandment is to reprove, perhaps a better rendition would be to improve! Each of us is obligated to help and improve our fellow human being. Sometimes this is best achieved by telling someone the best course of action. But just as often the best course is to give encouragement and support, which will give him or her the strength to carry out this course.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b, Arkhin 16b