Shabbat Parashat Haazinu| 5765
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Question: Someone sinned against his friend, but the victim is unaware of what the sinner did to him and will be very upset if he finds out. Should the sinner tell him and ask for forgiveness?
Answer: The mishna (Yoma 85b) says that one does not receive atonement on Yom Kippur for sins between man and man until he appeases the victim. Thus, the sinner should go to great lengths to appease. The question is whether that includes causing further pain to the victim.
This dilemma is said to be a point of disagreement of two of the great teachers of morality of a century ago. The Chafetz Chayim, in the work from which he received his nickname (Hilchot Lashon Hara 4:12) states that one who caused damage to his friend through speech must ask his forgiveness even if it requires uncovering the story. Rav Yisrael Salanter is reported (in both oral and written record of the exchange) to have protested the ruling, claiming that a sinner cannot make efforts to receive atonement at the expense of another, who doesn’t deserve more pain. Rav Avigdor Neventzal shlita is cited (Mikraei Kodesh (Harari) Yom Kippur 2:(4)) as finding it difficult to believe that the Chafetz Chayim is understood correctly. Rav Neventzal understood that it would be proper to uncover the offense only if the resulting damage would be to the sinner, not if it would extend to the victim. Whatever version of the Chafetz Chayim’s opinion (or Rabbeinu Yona’s, upon whom he is based) one accepts, the accepted approach is that it is wrong to cause new wounds. One should also realize that even if he gets a degree of atonement for the sin (asking forgiveness of man or Hashem does not assure full removal of every sin), he may add on to the grievousness of the damage and, thus, might anyway lose out in the process.
This being said, one must realize that sometimes the aforementioned concern is exaggerated. On one hand, there are times that even if a victim is aware of the affront, recalling it will cause a painful re-opening of the wound. Yet, that does not mean that it is not worthwhile to ask forgiveness. Often wounds need to be re-opened in order to be properly tended to and heal. The offender should not automatically use the initial uneasiness as an excuse to avoid the very difficult task of asking forgiveness. However, one has to be wise and sensitive about how he does it. If he makes a quick phone call a half hour before Yom Kippur or the like it might be taken as an insincere effort to get some overly easy atonement. Emotional conversations must be planned, and no two situations are identical or are properly remedied in the identical way.
What happens if one decides that he should not ask forgiveness? First of all, a general request of forgiveness from the party is worth something, certainly when the affront is known but is embarrassing to the victim to bring up (see Mishna Berura (written by the Chafetz Chayim) 606: 4, who agrees in this case). In general, it appears that the mishna that requires appeasing the victim is sometimes taken out of context. Yes, it is futile to attempt teshuva for sins between people by addressing only Hashem without receiving forgiveness from his friend. But it can be illustrated from the mishna’s contextand from related sources that this is because one cannot be sincere about his repentance if he has the ability to remedy the situation and refuses to do so. So, the Rambam (Teshuva 2:9) talks in one breath of making necessary monetary payments and appeasing. The Pri Chadash (OC 606) and Minchat Chinuch (#364) talk about not getting atonement even for the element of the sin of affront to Hashem in this case. There is also a process described as sufficient to do one’s duties of seeking forgiveness from victims who are not willing to forgive. These and other sources imply that if one does all that he should for his counterpart, then Hashem will grant him at least partial atonement. Thus, if one refrains from revealing details only in order to spare his friend pain (as Rav Salanter requires) he can expect to receive partial atonement, according to his sincerity.
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