As a prerequisite for atonement, in preparation for Yom Kippur, halachah (Jewish law) mandates that we ask for forgiveness — michala — if we have offended, hurt, maligned or otherwise done harm to our fellow man.
Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah, Chapter 2:9 states:
Teshuvah and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God.... However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.
Even if a person restores the money that he owes [to the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him.
Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.
Conversely, “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger.” Even if the injured person was severely wronged, “he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”
The Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, discusses the relationship between man and God and the atonement one seeks for any violation of God’s will. He puts forth two steps in the restoration of the relationship:
1) Teshuvah (asking for forgiveness). In this step, a person is fully pardoned for “having violated the command of the King, [for he has] repented fully,” and therefore, “no charge nor semblance of an accusation is mentioned against him on the day of judgment so that he should be punished for his sin, God forbid, in the World to Come; in his trial he is completely exonerated.”
2) Nirza Lo (It shall be acceptable for him). “Nonetheless, in order that he should be acceptable before God, as beloved of Him as before the sin, so that his Creator might derive delight from his service — [in past times] he would bring an olah offering” — a sacrifice to God.
In reviewing the Alter Rebbe’s steps in the restoration of man’s relationship with God, I have pondered how it would apply between man and man. Let me apply this in three different venues of life: Marriage, friendship and business:
1. In the area of marriage, where trust has been shattered in the case of infidelity.
2. In the area of friendship, where a very good friend has spoken gossip or much worse.
3. Where business has been done on a “handshake” for many years and the “commitment” has been shattered without any apparent reason.
The question is how to apply, if possible, the above two steps to the personal dynamic between fellow men.
In teshuvah, one asks for forgiveness in the proper way with heartfelt feelings of sorrow, to appease and mollify the person hurt. But now, what is the process if we must expect, on a human level, to restore the relationship as if the breakdown in trust never happened?
Can one say, “I fully forgive you, but I still don’t trust you?” And what is it that one has to do to reestablish trust as fully as before? What about in other venues of life, for example — if before the breakdown in trust, my friends/business associates were always invited to my simchas (weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, etc.)? Once I’ve granted forgiveness am I then “obligated” to invite them to my simchas as I have in the past, invite them to my home for seder dinner, to invite them to my family Hanukkah party, and so on?
Let me tell a personal story. In 2004, a committee that oversaw a major national project of Chabad, on which I had served for 15 years, became involved in a key issue on which there were differences of opinions. For more than a year, we tried to find a solution to this major issue without success. Finally, at the end of this process, which necessitated time and effort, let alone the energy which left me drained at the end of many a day, I put forth a radical compromise to the issue.
Many around the table congratulated me with words of mazel tov on this novel idea, but in my heart I had reservations “the deal” would hold. Late at night after the meeting, I received a call from someone whom I admired — let’s call him “Reb Mendel.” He was quite agitated, not knowing the full context of the compromise. He thought we had “sold out.” I greatly respected Reb Mendel. He was someone 13 years my senior and had not been at the meeting. I calmly explained the situation, that he did not have all the facts and context from which the solution had been suggested. A few days later, I received a call from Reb Mendel in which he apologized and asked for michala for what he had said to me during that initial phone call.
To be perfectly honest, I was still raw and drained and did not wholeheartedly accept his michala.
Reb Mendel, in addition to being someone I had admired and learned from, was a very close and loyal friend to my father. Both our families go back to Russia. Reb Mendel’s father and my paternal grandfather both “sat” in the gulag in Siberia in the 1930s for their involvement in maintaining Jewish education under Communist rule. In fact, my grandfather officiated at Reb Mendel’s parents’ wedding. Reb Mendel sensed, when we would meet in New York after his call asking for michala, that I had not been fully mollified. Erev Yom Kippur of that year, I received another call from Reb Mendel again apologizing for that call months earlier, where in his moment of agitation he had expressed himself sharply to me. I was moved by the call and said, with a full heart (so I thought), that I forgave him.
Fast forward to January 2006: Our daughter Raizy became engaged in New York. As is our custom, at the engagement party family and very close friends are invited and the engagement takes place within 24 hours from when it is publicly announced that there is a new chossan and kalla. The day of the engagement is a whirlwind: Preparations, calls, and family in and out. At such previous simchas, Reb Mendel had always been invited. Throughout the day, I went back and forth in my mind on whether to invite him to this simcha, but although I had granted him michala I somehow wasn’t quite there. As I prepared to leave the apartment to walk the few blocks to the party, and my dear wife Chanie was saying, “Enough calls, we have to go now,” something came over me.
“I have to call him,” I told myself. “Call him — do it for your father.” I made the call, and I sensed the joy in his voice to the invitation to the simcha.
By the time it took us to walk the few blocks, Reb Mendel was already there at the yeshiva — he was one of the first to arrive. He walked straight over to my father and in front of me, they embraced, and the genuine Chassidic love and brotherhood I saw when they looked at each other will always be etched in my memory. Two days later, as Reb Mendel was walking down Kingston Avenue, at the young age of 73, he collapsed and passed away. Now my friends, how would I feel if I had not invited him to our simcha?
To be continued….