On Forgiveness

By Rabbanit Bili Rabenstein, Israeli Rosh Beit Midrash, Midreshet Lindenbaum 

Toward the end of Tractate Yoma in the Gemara, a series of stories about people asking forgiveness from each other appears. These stories are a candid and emotional expression of how difficult it is for people to make up.

The first story of the series is that of Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Abba:

Rabbi Yirmiya insulted Rabbi Abba, causing the latter to have a complaint against him. Rabbi Yirmiya went and sat at the threshold of Rabbi Abba’s house to beg him for forgiveness. (Tractate Yoma 87a)

In this short description, the Gemara is saying quite a bit: asking for forgiveness seems like a simple request, but for Rabbi Yirmiya, it required a colossal effort. Rabbi Yirmiya would like to be forgiven, and reach a rapprochement with Rabbi Abba, so he makes his way to Rabbi Abba’s house. He reaches the house but is unable to cross the threshold. In his great distress, he sits down, unable to take another step.

Why is it so hard to ask for forgiveness? When we ask for forgiveness, we are acknowledging our weaknesses. This act is a clear-cut expression of our failings, and this is why we find it so demanding and difficult. By asking for forgiveness, we are also acknowledging how much we need other people, and this, too, proves exceedingly difficult. The state of being needy is a difficult emotional state to be in, and it is all the more difficult when asking for forgiveness. In this case, we are needy towards the same people who saw us at our weakest state.

I feel that the short sentence of the Gemara – “He went and sat at the threshold of Rabbi Abba’s house” – succeeds in illustrating all facets of this complexity.

The story of Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Abba reaches a dead end, with Rabbi Yirmiya unable to take another step, and collapsing at the doorstep. It is at this point that things start taking a turn:

When Rabbi Abba’s maid poured out the dirty water from the house, the stream of water landed on Rabbi Yirmeya’s head. He said about himself: They have made me into a trash heap! He recited this verse about himself: “Who lifts up the needy out of the trash heap”!

Rabbi Abba heard what happened and went out to greet him. Rabbi Abba said to him: Now I must go out to appease you for this insult, as it is written: “Go, humble yourself and urge your neighbor”.

What produces this reconciliation at the end of this story? Reconciliation stems from a new need that has arisen. Now, Rabbi Abba must apologize as well. By pouring water on Rabbi Yirmiya’s head, and offending Rabbi Yirmiya, the two are now even. This “evenness” lets Rabbi Yirmiya be the weak side, because Rabbi Abba would also be weak. When others are prepared to be weak, our ego is prepared to have its weakness exposed, and ask for forgiveness.

This transition from pride to humility is a topic that Rabbi Shimshon Gershon Rosenberg writes about:

When a person appears as “me”, he or she immediately creates a field of “me’s” around them, and these “me’s” are certainly opposed to them… this is “the glory of kings is to search out a matter”. “Me’s” regard other “me’s” as wolves regard each other. However, when people approach each other with a deep sense of humility, it is no longer a matter of “me” and “you”. The other person now becomes a partner, a case of “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter”. Not only does humility not nullify us – it because a source of strength (excerpted from She’elat Hare’ahAni Ve’Ata, in the chapter “Upon the handles of the bolt”, page 78).

Later in the text, we encounter what Rabbi Yirmiya said: “He said about himself: They have made me into a trash heap! He recited this verse about himself: “Who lifts up the needy out of the trash heap!” He said this somewhat in jest, choosing to laugh at himself. The Maharsha says that Rabbi Yirmiya chose this verse because it contains a midrashic allusion to his own name: Yirmiya, Yarim Y’a, “Hashem will raise up”. This is a new viewpoint regarding the entire situation, with a little wink thrown in. According to this reading, Rabbi Yirmiya acted out of a sense of self-respect, which deprived him of the ability to reduce some of this self-respect and ask for forgiveness. The turning point occurs at the moment he is able to laugh at himself and detract from his own self-respect. This is when the gateway to his fellow human beings was opened, an encounter that can almost be taken for granted. All of a sudden, it became effortless.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest another way of understanding the journey towards forgiveness. Forgiveness is essentially when a person renews his or her trust in someone else. When a person whom I’ve hurt forgives me, they are prepared to place trust in me, even though I had faltered, and despite my failures. So, by asking for forgiveness, above all else, I am expressing faith in myself, confident that I deserve this trust. The ability to turn to someone else and ask that person to trust me once more must start with an intrinsic process. If I don’t believe I deserve forgiveness and trust, I will never be able to ask for these things.

This may just be what makes apologizing so difficult – it’s such a hard thing to do because it’s very hard for me to believe that I truly deserve that trust. My first step of asking for forgiveness is a dramatic moment. It’s a powerful moment, when I start believing in myself. After having done that, I can put the ball in someone else’s court.


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