Elul: Forgiveness – Rabbi Daniel Gefen

Moshe and Karen had reached an impasse. She insisted he apologize for his “betrayals” in the past, while he stuck to his guns. “You can’t just say sorry,” she said mockingly. “You have to mean it too! I want you to show you understand what you put me through, what pain you’ve caused me! I need to see that you feel my pain.” Moshe looked at me hopelessly, as if to say, “Help me out here Daniel!”

But I could not help Moshe – he needed to take seriously Karen’s request and try to fulfill it, and I could not do the apologizing for him. He did apologize, but not in the way Karen wanted: he excused himself for not being able to reach the level of empathy and remorse that she was demanding, claiming it was beyond him.

What was bothering Moshe? Did he not understand that a genuine apology would go a long way to solving the marital difficulties they had been experiencing? “If he would just swallow his pride and apologize,” I thought to myself, “we could actually make some progress in this therapy.” I had been seeing Moshe and Karen for more than six months and they were still struggling to make progress. But what was holding Moshe back? And why was Karen so adamant that his apology had to be heartfelt and remorseful?

As I was looking through the classic work “Orchot Tzaddikim” (Paths Of The Righteous), I came across a section (Feldheim edition page 476) which outlines the introductory stages of Teshuva.          

Even if one is aware of his transgressions, he will not regret them if he does not know the full extent of the evil his transgressions represent. He may think, “What does it really matter if I ate without making a bracha, or I neglected Torah study – it’s not so terrible.” Someone with this kind of attitude will never regret his actions and will not repent fully.

This was the first key to solving the mystery of Moshe’s inability to apologize. He had not betrayed Karen in the true sense at all. What he had seen as totally innocent mingling with other women, she had interpreted as flirting overtly, and consequently felt utterly betrayed and humiliated. How could he be expected to regret his actions, then, when in his eyes they were justified?! Karen’s demands were impossible to fulfill because of this interpretive divide.

In truth, though, there was more depth to be uncovered, as Moshe revealed to me in our next meeting – without Karen. When I told him my suggested explanation of his failure to apologize genuinely, he agreed immediately. But then he added another layer: “I couldn’t feel her pain at that time, because she was so demanding. I felt like she was attacking me and so I kind of shut down.”

Even if Moshe had been able to accept and understand, on an intellectual level, his betrayal of his wife, he would still have been unable to muster the appropriate emotions. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to switch rapidly between differing emotions. When Moshe felt under attack, his automated response was defense – what he termed “shutting down.” This could be analogous to the kind of physiological response we experience when facing immediate physical danger – the heart rate rises rapidly and we become hyper-alert, something termed “flight or fight.” This is a powerful state of emotion focused on self-preservation, and so it would be nigh-on impossible to flip out of it and start thinking about someone else, let alone feel someone else’s feelings.

In this respect, Karen’s approach is of paramount importance – if her request for an apology comes across as an attack, Moshe will not be able to override his defense circuits, which in turn means she will not receive the apology she needs. In order for this interaction to be resolved successfully both parties need to participate in a manner which implies building the relationship rather than scoring one over the other.

While in Sefer Iyov we are told that “from my flesh I see G-d,” Chazal repeatedly emphasize that “the midda of Hakadosh Baruch Hu is not like the midda of flesh and blood.” Even though we learn about Hashem by looking at and examining human beings – we are after all made in the image of G-d, there are obviously fundamental differences. If you pay attention to the behavior of young children, you’ll probably notice that they do not forgive others easily. In fact, they tend to interpret any harm that comes their way as being deliberately planned against them. Although adults are generally mature enough to avoid the latter error, we still have trouble sincerely forgiving those who wrong us. The hurt clouds our judgment and we cannot see past our pain and indignation.

Which brings us to a striking gulf between the midda of Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the midda of flesh and blood. Hashem is constantly forgiving us, readily, happily, year after year. To draw the contrast more sharply: imagine that you asked your neighbor very politely not to park in your space, explaining to him patiently how important it is that you are able to access it. Imagine that he nods and happily agrees to keep out of it, telling you not to worry. Imagine the next day you discover he is in your space again, unaware that you have spotted him. What is your reaction now? Will you find it easy to forgive him? How could he be so brazen as to promise you he would not do it and then go ahead the very next day and break his promise?!

The analogy should be obvious. Our Creator tells us specifically what to do and what we must not do. We learn it, we go through the details, and then we go right ahead and violate the rules we committed to keep, defying G-d in His full view.

And this is the unbelievable thing: if we say sorry and ask for forgiveness, He will forgive us. And He will do this repeatedly. He does not try to belittle us for betraying Him, or tell us, “I told you so.” He remains open to allow us to return to Him, even if we go over the same transgressions again and again. He will never grow tired of forgiving us, because we are His children, as Moshe tells us (Devarim 14:1) “You are the children of G-d your L-rd.” G-d is not limited by insulted and indignant feelings like we are, and his patience can never wear out. As we say in the Shemone Esrei, Hashem is “Hamarbe lislo’ach” – He forgives in abundance.

All of this means that the onus is really on us. As mentioned above, the first step is to ensure we recognize the error of our ways, for without this Teshuva is impossible. If we can then offer a sincere apology, and make a commitment to trying to avoid the transgression, as well as feeling even the slightest remorse for having let our Creator down, we can be assured of forgiveness from our loving Father. 


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