Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
ASKING FORGIVENESS FROM OUR FELLOW MAN
Repentance: For sin against fellow man Yom Kippur alone can not atone for sins against other people. Only when the victim is appeased can the offender seek forgiveness from HaShem - and this too is needed, for any crime against a fellow human being is also a crime against God (SA OC 606:1).
Forgiveness: Each human being is created in God’s image. Each person reveals a unique spark and aspect of Divinity. What is the greatest expression of our Godliness? It is our power of forgiveness. While God “delegates” to us His attribute of free will, He sometimes limits our free will in order to carry out His will, as when He hardened Pharoah’s heart.
HaShem granted us creative talents out of His ability to create ex nihilo, so that we may continue the work which He began in the six days of creation, but He sustains or destroys our petty creations according to His plan. But when He transferred to each human being the power to forgive personal transgressions, He transferred it irrevocably. God Himself is so to speak prevented from forgiving the transgressor so long as the victim refuses to do so.
It follows that we reach the highest level of holiness when we forgive, and indeed our Sages instruct us to be always ready and willing to forgive, indicating that this is a special quality of the Jewish people who are close to HaShem.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation • Actually, there are two different aspects of asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur. One is so that we do not have any outstanding sins so that we may achieve complete atonement on Yom Kippur. (MB 606:1.) Yet for this reason it would be enough if the person we wronged forgives us wholeheartedly – for instance if he says the tefilla zaka (in which we forgive all who wronged us) or even the special forgiveness said before going to sleep.
However, there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Remote forgiveness removes the barrier keeping people apart, but it doesn’t bring them together. For this it is necessary for an actual encounter between the wrongdoer and the wronged, at the very least through a shaliach (emissary).
In this way we can explain why some Sages made a special effort to make themselves available to those who wronged them, to encourage them to ask forgiveness. If the concern was merely that the sinners should avoid punishment, then private forgiveness would be enough, but that wouldn’t restore friendly relations. (Yoma 87a.)
This aspect of reconciliation is no less important than atonement. The Mishna Berura mentions that the sin should not be mentioned if it causes awkwardness which may lead to continued antagonism between the sides (MB 606:3.) Even though this means the forgiveness will be less complete, reconciliation between the two sides is paramount.
Indeed, the Tur (OC 606) cites a Midrash which suggests that the primary reason for making amends is not to achieve individual forgiveness but rather to increase brotherhood among all Jews.
It follows that even if strained relations with someone are not due to any particular sin, Yom Kippur is still the ideal time to try and approach them and try to mend the breach. In this way, the entire Jewish people will enter Sukkot, the time of our rejoicing, not only purified from sin but also united in friendship.
Rabbi Meir has recently completed writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.