Jewish Ethics

How Far Must You Go To Forgive Someone?

Someone publicly embarrassed Rabbi David Battelman in synagogue but it wasn’t just someone, it was the Gabbai of the synagogue who was very careful that everyone should come on time to prayers. The Gabbai’s life was hard and he grew old and bitter and everyone in the synagogue would walk on eggshells not to offend him for he would lash out, his sharp tongue could sting like a whip if you were at the brunt of his words. The Gabbai was tough with anything he considered an infraction but being late for prayers was the most serious infraction and that would earn the most serious tongue lashing.

This was in Meah Shearim almost a century ago when in order to encourage living outside the old city walls of Jerusalem new neighborhood sprung up funded by philanthropists who would charge a minimal rent or even allow tenants in rent free if they’d pray in the synagogue and participate in synagogue classes.

Rabbi David Battelman got older and he actually became very ill with cancer. He found it hard to get to the synagogue on time and one morning found himself the brunt of the Gabbai’s wrath. “Aren’t ashamed of yourself?” the Gabbai asked. “Do you think you can be late to prayers and go on like nothing happened? You get a free apartment and all we ask is that you participate in prayers and classes. Is this the way you pay us back? Do you think you can live in an apartment just through our kindness?”

Rabbi David was mortified and looked down at the floor. The others just watched and were afraid to speak up on his behalf they too would get it if they did. Rabbi David didn’t expect the Gabbai to ask how he was feeling and coping with his illness but he also didn’t expect this public embarrassment either. But the Gabbai wasn’t yet finished with his tirade. “Here’s a young irresponsible man who doesn’t know the value of being on time,” continued the Gabbai. The whole time Rabbi David looked down deeply ashamed. Answering back would just escalate it so he just waited for the Gabbai to run out of steam and calm down.

After wearing out his old vocal chords the Gabbai turned around and went into the synagogue kitchen to make himself a tea to soothe his strained vocal chords. Rabbi David had nowhere to hide from his shame but kept silent.

A few minutes later the Gabbai announced: “Friends, I’ve run out of my medicine. Is anyone going into the old city that can get me my medicines; I don’t have strength to go can someone do me that favor?” There were no pharmacies outside the old city as of yet so the Gabbai was looking for someone who was going there. The synagogue was emptying out and no one was going when suddenly Rabbi David piped up: “I’ll go. Give me the prescription and I’ll get it.”

Rabbi David himself was sick with cancer and he went to help the man that just embarrassed him in front of everyone walking the long distance in his condition. The congregants still there couldn’t believe their eyes. The man who just embarrassed him was getting his help!  The Gabbai said: “Here’s the money and bring it to my house and don’t be late!”

Rabbi David ran to the old city something difficult enough if he was healthy, but he was ill. He ran a half hour to the old city pharmacy and a half hour back. Almost by the Gabbai’s house some fellow congregants saw him and asked: “How far must you go to forgive? Did you have to do this for him? To run like a young healthy man though you’re old and sick? And for someone who just shamed you deeply? You didn’t just forgive him you ran for him?!”

Rabbi David smiled shyly and said: “Look, I always look to forgive someone who hurt me very quickly and not wait. But this Gabbai really hurt me and I found it hard to forgive him. I just couldn’t, so I had to exert myself for him to run and do good for him so I could find a way to connect my heart to him and forgive him, so that’s what I did. I managed to wipe the hurt out of my heart so I could forgive him.”

Forgiving isn’t always easy and in Rabbi David’s case it was almost impossible but rabbi David taught us that it’s literally worth the effort, even a lot of effort to get to the point you can sincerely forgive. That’s how important forgiveness is!


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