Granting Forgiveness

Q. A few months ago, someone hurt my feelings. Recently he apologized, and I replied with a non-committal answer like, “Don’t worry.” He was upset that I didn’t give him an explicit statement that I forgive him. Do I have to? 

A. Sometimes granting forgiveness is as difficult as seeking it. It may seem that asking the wronged party to work things out with the wrongdoer is adding insult to injury, but granting forgiveness is actually one of the most important things we can do, and one of the most important privileges which God grants us.

A careful study of Jewish sources reveals that forgiveness fulfills two distinct roles – one religious, and one personal.

The religious role of forgiveness is that it enables the wrongdoer to achieve atonement for his act. It is a firm doctrine of Jewish belief that God doesn’t grant full forgiveness for our sins against our fellow man until we obtain forgiveness directly from the wronged individual.

The personal role of forgiveness is that apology and forgiveness enable the two sides to put the incident behind them, and to restore harmonious relations – “forgive and forget”. This personal aspect of forgiveness is perhaps even more important than the religious one.

There are many consequences of this duality. For instance, a person may think I wronged him, but actually I didn’t. In this case I don’t need to attain atonement, but my interpersonal relationships are still strained, so it may be appropriate for me to ask forgiveness. Or I may already have completely forgiven someone for what he did to me, but until he hears this from me directly he may still be ashamed, so I should tell him that I have no hard feelings.

Conversely, my friend may not know that I am the one who wronged him. In this case our relationship is not affected, but I still face an obstacle in receiving Divine forgiveness. So I still want him to forgive me. In such an instance the best course is often to ask forgiveness through an intermediary who will not reveal my identity; otherwise there is a danger that my very asking of forgiveness will create ill will since it uncovers my wrongdoing.

So we see that there are two problems with a vague statement like “Don’t worry.” Your reluctance to make a more explicit statement may mean that you haven’t actually forgiven the person. In that case, you owe it to him to make clear what you demand of him in order to accept his apology. And even if you have forgiven, if he isn’t convinced of the fact then you haven’t restored friendly relations — he believes you are still bearing a grudge.

The exact words you use to respond to apology are not important, but the person shouldn’t be left in the dark as to whether you have forgiven him or not.

SOURCES: Tur, Shulchan Arukh and Mishna Berura, Orach Chaim 606.

NOTE ON LAST WEEK’S COLUMN:
As our disclaimer points out, the Jewish Ethicist provides ethical guidance, not legal advice. A number of lawyers have suggested that the situation we discussed last week – holding on to collateral – involves specific legal obligations and therefore someone who faces this situation should consult a legal professional.