To Forgive is Divine

To Forgive is Divine

The Biblical books of Joshua and Samuel tell us about a Canaanite people called the Gibeonites. When the Jews left Egypt and were about to enter Canaan, they offered the people in Canaan three choices: (1) leave (2) observe the seven laws of Noach (which are simply laws of civilization), pay taxes and perform national services or (3) face total destruction by the Jews (Artscroll, Joshua, page 45). The Gibeonites chose none of the above. They pretended to be people from a distant land and fooled the Jews into making a pact with them (Joshua, Chapter 9) . Upon learning of the ruse, the Jews required the Gibeonites to become servants (id.).

Time went by and Saul became King of Israel. Here the story gets a little complicated (and the complications, though well worth your study, are beyond the scope of this book). Either King Saul killed some of the Gibeonites and/or King Saul killed everyone else in the town where the Gibeonites lived and destroyed the Gibeonites’ means of support (I Samuel 21:1 and Rashi there; Talmud Yevamos 78b and Rashi there; Talmud Baba Kama 119a).

Either way, the Gibeonites were angry. And G-d agreed they were aggrieved and brought a famine to punish the Jews (I Samuel, 21) . King David, the king after Saul, tried to placate the Gibeonites (I Samuel, 21:2-4) . But the Gibeonites told David that they would not be placated until the Gibeonites slaughtered the descendants of King Saul (id. at 4-6) .

What do the Gibeonites have to do with marriage? Here is Jewish law as decided by the Rambam:

“It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. This is the path of the seed of Israel and their upright spirit. In contrast, the insensitive gentiles do not act in this manner. Rather, their wrath is preserved forever. Similarly, because the Gibeonites did not forgive and refused to be appeased, [II Samuel 21;2] describes them, as follows: ‘The Gibeonites are not among the children of Israel.’ (Laws of Teshuva (Return) 2: 10)”

Thus, according to the Rambam, part of the essence of being Jewish is to forgive. Indeed, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, based on a book by David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origin of a Moral Idea, contends that there was no concept of forgiveness before the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Torah (which we will discuss in greater detail later).[1] Jews originated the idea of forgiveness.

The Rambam certainly was not alone in emphasizing the importance of forgiving others. The prophet Micah (7:18) asked: “Who is G-d like You, tolerating iniquity and forgiving transgression … ?” The Talmud comments (Rosh Hashanah 17a): “Whose iniquities does G-d tolerate? A person who forgives the transgressions of another.”

Similarly, Rashiagrees that the essence of Jew is to forgive (Rashi on II Samuel 21:2) and writes: “ If a person asks you for forgiveness, you should not be cruel and refrain from forgiving.” (on Bamidbar (Numbers) 21:7). The Rambam, like Rashi, expressly forbids a person from acting cruelly and refusing to forgive one who injures him : “And it is forbidden for the injured party to be cruel and refuse to forgive him…”(Laws of Personal Injury 5:9).[2]

Some married couples, in contravention of these rules, refuse to forgive. We have heard it all in counseling when it comes to this refusal to forgive . “Rabbi, you have no idea how hurt I was and how many times he hurt me. I can’t forgive.” “Rabbi, I won’t forgive her. She didn’t really mean her apology.”

Time after time, we have heard what we have come to refer to as the “18 years of pain” speech. A spouse (usually a wife) comes in with a complaint list that spans the entire marriage, sometimes starting as early as the wedding day itself. We are bombarded with story after story, purporting to show the other spouse is insensitive, unthinking, lazy, uninvolved and yes, plain rotten.  The attacked spouse often starts out befuddled as they have forgotten the vast majority of the events. However, as the list goes on and on and on, the attacked spouse begins to think that the best defense is a good offense. Thus, the attacked spouse becomes the attacker and drudges up all this junk from the couples’ past too and begins to criticize as well. Notwithstanding the years and Yom Kippurim that have passed, these couples have forgiven nothing.

Many couples often seem to love to discuss these hurts over and over again.  The wrongdoer is never forgiven and somehow has to give up his or her life and even then…

Sometimes, the spouses pretend to forgive when they really do not. We know of a case where someone once offended another and went to ask forgiveness. The offended party said, “I forgive but I never forget.”    The Sefer Hachinuch finds this behavior violates the Torah prohibition against bearing a grudge (Vayikra, Leviticus 19:18): “not to bear a grudge. That is to say, we are prohibited from harboring in our hearts how we were wronged by another Jew. Even if we have made up our minds not to retaliate for actions merely retaining the memory of his misdeeds in hearts is prohibited.”[3]

The Ramban was expansive on the prohibition of continuing to hold onto old grievances: “For when you reprove him he [the person who wrongs you] will either justify himself to you or repent and confess his sin and you will forgive him. Afterwards [Scripture] warns that you shall not take revenge on him and bear a grudge in your heart over what he did to you because it is possible [the injured party] will not hate him but will remember the misdeed in his heart. Therefore, it warns that he shall erase the offense of his brother and his sin from his heart. And afterward it commands that [the injured party] shall love [that brother] as himself.” (Ramban on Yayikra (Leviticus) 9:17).[4]

Consider a couple who we originally thought was way off the normal chart but we have since learned is not even extreme. Harry and Susan were newlyweds. Harry was praying in a room, alone. Susan walked into the room to get something and disturbed his concentration. Harry went back to praying and Susan left only to return five minutes later because she needed something else. Harry was unhappy and let Susan know it with his scowl (no doubt, not wanting to interrupt his moment of holiness by yelling). And then, this capital offense happened a third time. Susan needed yet another thing and interrupted Harry yet again. He was furious!

After Harry finished praying, Susan apologized profusely. Yet, Harry refused to talk to Susan for three days (one day for each interruption, we guess). We thought Harry’s behavior was outrageous. But then we found a couple that did not exchange pleasantries for weeks at a time and constantly repeated this pattern after each new set of grievances.

All this leads us to one simple question: where is the secret footnote in the Rambam, Rashi, Ramban and Sefer Hachinuch that allows spouses to hold onto grievances or to refuse to forgive?




[2]One could argue this requirement applies only to physical injuries not emotional hurts but it could also be asserted that if one is required to forgive physical offenses, even more so one is required to forgive emotional affronts.

[3]Sefer Hachinuch, The Book of Mitzvos, Mitzvah 242, page 380 (Mesorah 2013). There is a debate whether the obligation not to bear a grudge applies only to monetary matter or is broader and applies even to personal attacks. See Insight: Are Revenge and Grudge bearing Prohibited Even for a Personal Attack, Sefer Hachinuch, supra, pages 381-382 . That piece concludes that “with respect to practical halacha in this matter, Chofetz Chaim rules that based on the principle that a doubt with regard to a Biblical matter must be dealt with stringently…one must follow the stringent opinion of the Chinuch and the Rambam and it is prohibited to bear a grudge or take revenge under all circumstances.” Id. at 382. As we will discuss elsewhere, the author notes that one is not prohibited from responding in kind to insults although it is the way of the wise to do so with dignity and grace.

[4]The Torah: With Ramban’s Commentary Translated, Annotated and Elucidated, Vayikra/Leviticus 532 (Mesorah 2010)

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