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Terumah: Shalom Aleichem
Shalom Aleichem; peace unto you, is the classic Jewish greeting. It is beautiful, meaningful, and succinct. The classic response, however, is curious. Rather than responding with Shalom Aleichem, we reverse the greeting and say Aleichem SHalom, unto you peace.
Now, Jews like to be contrarian. Next time you are …

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Home » Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa: Are You A Forgiver At Heart?

Submitted by on February 14, 2011 – 4:51 pmNo Comment | 1,359 views

Petty Grudges

Are you the forgiving type? I don’t mean the type that forgives after making another grovel for it. I mean the type that forgives without even being asked. If you are, well if you are, I have no words to describe you. You are perhaps an angel or a pure soul; your nature is better than human.

Still that is precisely what we expect from the wholly pious and if we expect it from them then we certainly expect it from G-d. We expect G-d to be absolutely yielding, conciliatory, understanding and forgiving of our sins. And by rights, why should we not? Is he not G-d? Is he not larger than petty resentment? G-d should be able to forgive. In fact G-d shouldn’t even take offense in the first place.

Except that is not exactly how it works; is it? We all know the story of the Golden Calf. Moses climbed Mount Sinai and remained there for forty days. The Israelites, who supposed that Moses had died, fashioned a golden calf and proceeded to worship it. The Torah speaks of G-d’s wrath and of His desire at that time to annihilate an entire generation of sinners. It was only after Moses pleaded with G-d to pardon the sin that G-d consented to forgive. (1)

Is G-d so petty as to require an apology before forgiving? Can He not tolerate vicissitude in those He created?

In truth this is not exactly a fair question. Of course G-d is above taking offense. His wrath was not the product of bruised ego, hurt feelings or personal offense. The Torah describes G-d’s wrath as “charon af,” anger of the face. (2) G-d put on an appearance of anger, though He is in truth never angered by the actions of humans. Still the question is why does G-d put on an appearance of anger?

The Talmud teaches that G-d treats us in the mode that we treat others. Indeed, when we see G-d’s posture toward us we can assume it is a mirror of our posture toward others. (3) The Psalmist wrote, G-d is your shadow. (4) The Chassidic masters explained that G-d shadows our behavior because what we see above is a reflection of what we do below. (5)

Boundaries

Forgiveness seems simple on the surface. Someone hurts us, realizes the error of his ways, begs our forgiveness and we forgive. But it is never that simple. Why could we not forgive until we were asked? There is a complex web of feelings that has to be processed before we are empowered to forgive.

When we are disrespected the offender invades our space. That space could be physical or emotional; it belongs to us and the invader entered unbidden. Until an apology is issued the invader continues to fill our space. We cannot forgive while the invader continues to violate our space.

By apologizing the offender empowers us to forgive. The apology is firstly a statement of contrition. The invader proclaims I did wrong and I acknowledge my guilt. You have every right to be upset; I invaded your space and I’m sorry. Secondly the apology is a statement of restoration; I pledge to withdraw from your space and return it to you. I will restore your honor and do all I can to rebuild your trust.

Now that our space has been returned and our ego assuaged we are empowered to forgive. forgiver - innerstreamSuch forgiveness might feel noble and conciliatory, but there is nothing humble about it. We don’t forgive because we overcame our ego; we forgive because our ego has been appeased. Often we even withhold forgiveness, letting the other party hang just a little, to punish them and exact our petty revenge.

We forgive at this point because we have no choice. It would be unseemly not to forgive. Withholding forgiveness from a sincere penitent turns us into the villain and our ego cannot abide that. Human nature being what it is, manages the greatest irony of all; it turns forgiveness into an act of ego.

I am not blind to basic human decency. Given no reason to withhold forgiveness our innate desire for kinship is kindled and it propels us to forgive and resume the friendship. However, the timing of our forgiveness is not always to our liking. Events and circumstances often force it upon us before our ego is ready and we concede at this earlier point only because it is unseemly not to. (6)

Free Forgiveness

I am aware that I have painted a rather dismal picture of human nature. Further, I have generalized here and there are many exceptions. I acknowledge these exceptions and will go so far as to say that some exceptions are truly exceptional. These are the people our sages hailed as heroes. (7) “Those who are embarrassed, but do not embarrass, hear themselves being shamed, but do not in turn shame others, of them is written, ‘His lovers [will be rewarded in increasing measure] as [the light of] the increasing sun.’”

Those who do not take offense don’t feel violated because they do not subscribe to the notion that they own space in the first place. They truly live by the belief that all space belongs to G-d. If another chooses to invade the space they previously occupied it is between that other and G-d. Let G-d take it up with them; they feel no reason to grow angry.

Most of us cannot live up to that transcendent level, but aspiring to that level is within our grasp. Every human is capable of reflecting back on their moment of rage and feel shame for the very fact that they took offense. We are capable of realizing that the only reason we felt violated is because we previously claimed title to some of G-d’s space. What was done to us is only as terrible as what we did to G-d. Someone wrested my space from me, but I, in turn, only got that space because I wrested it from G-d.

After such reflection we are even capable of feeling grateful for the violation. After all, it helped us realize that we took liberties with G-d. Rather than feeling grateful to G-d for all our blessings we took them for granted and felt entitled. We might never have realized this had another not come along to take it from us. At that moment, when we felt violated, we finally realized that we had claimed for ourselves what we should have known was always G-d’s.

At this point we forgive with a full heart; from the soul and with humility. Not only do we forgive, we are even embarrassed for having taken offense. This is a holy form of forgiveness driven by our newfound awareness that the whole of the world belongs to G-d. His glory fills all space.

Mirror Image

G-d reflects back to us what we project toward Him. When we are humbly conciliatory and offer soulful, heartfelt forgiveness G-d does the same for us. When we claim our space for ourselves, take offense when it is taken away and await an apology before offering forgiveness, G-d treats us in kind.

So to answer our original question, is G-d capable of forgiving without waiting for an apology? Yes, but He set up this world in a way that lets us call the shots. (8) He waits for our cue and shadows our response. G-d acts as our shadow. What we do unto others, G-d reflects back unto us.

Footnotes

  1. Exodus Chapter 32
  2. Exodus 32: 10.
  3. Babylonian Talmud; Shabbos 151b. Megilah 12b.
  4. Psalms 130: 5.
  5. This is where human nature can be rather complex. Rather than a gesture of humility, forgiveness can be used as a sledge hammer to strike back at the offender.
  6. Babylonian Talmud Gittin 36b and Judges 5: 31.
  7. See also Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 28: 18.
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