Prayer as Atonement

Prayer as Atonement

Rabbi Shlomo WallfishRabbi Shlomo Walfish is a Ram (Rav Moreh) at OTS’s Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

The Mishnah in Baba Kama (Chapter 8, Mishnah 7) gives a summary of the compensatory damages that have to be paid by a person who injured or embarrassed his friend.  The Mishnah goes on to say that the offender not only has to pay damages, but he must also appease the offended party.  The Mishnah’s argument is based on the story in which Sarah was taken by King Abimelech and later returned to Abraham following an instruction from God.  From this episode, it seems that the offended party has to forgive his offender wholeheartedly.  A true expression of this sincere forgiveness is if the offended prays for the offender who has asked for forgiveness.    

“Even if he gives him 1, he is not forgiven until he asks for forgiveness, as is written: ‘And now give back the man’s wife…’  And whence do we learn that the forgiver must not show cruelness?  As is written: ‘And Abraham prayed to the Lord, and the Lord healed Abimelech.'”

The Gemara in Baba Kama (Babylonian Talmud 92:1) brings a commentary that adds to the Mishnah mentioned above, and reiterates the importance of asking for forgiveness:

“All the damages mentioned above are for the actual shame that was caused him; however, for the sorrow caused by that shame – the very best of the world’s offerings will not suffice, and he is not forgiven until he asks for forgiveness…” 

From here we learn that the severity of an injury is not only assessed by means of the monetary damage caused. Emotional or spiritual injury is also taken into account. Sometimes, no sum in the world will appease the person who has experienced grief; however, asking for his forgiveness wholeheartedly may reunite the two rivals.  

The other side of the equation is accepting the apology.  Many of us are familiar with the Rambam’s words in his book, Hilchot Teshuva instructing us not to be cruel, to accept any apology that is expressed sincerely and give our forgiveness.  This is the source for the directive stating that an offender need not ask for forgiveness more than three times.  The reason being that the offended party should not be stubborn and refuse to forgive 2.  It seems to me that what our Sages wish to teach us is that the process of forgiveness also involves the offended party praying for the person asking for forgiveness.  Although the Pnei Yehoshua points out that this prayer is not mandatory, from the following sources we can see that this prayer is not only very important, but is even compulsory on the part of the forgiver.  

A few years back, I learned this topic in depth, and on that very day God “gave me the privilege” of somewhat hurting a close friend.  We made up quickly, and peace soon prevailed, and so I asked my friend to pray for me, just as I had learned.  My friend looked at me in astonishment, with a look that said – “Surely, if anybody is supposed to pray for somebody, it should be you praying for me!”  I told him what I had learned, and he accepted it kindly.  Nevertheless, this little incident drew my attention further to this topic, and I decided to delve a little deeper into it.   

The Tosefta (in Baba Kama, Chapter 9, Halacha 29) advises one who has been offended to forgive and pray for the offender, even if the latter is not at all sorry for his wrongdoing:

“In the case of one who has injured his friend – even in such a case where the offender has not asked for forgiveness from the offended party, the latter must still pray for the offender, as is written: ‘And Abraham prayed to the Lord’.  The same idea is expressed in the Book of Job with regard to Job’s friends:  ‘And now take you all seven bulls and seven rams and offer them as sacrifice.’  And what follows?  ‘And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends.'”

This appears to be a very radical demand of man; some go so far as to say that only the very righteous are able to fulfill it:  Even if the offender has not asked for forgiveness, the injured party must still pray for him 3.

Unlike the Tosefta’s difficult demand, the Mishnah takes a softer approach.  The prayer for the offender follows the latter’s plea for forgiveness.  The prayer in itself acknowledges the fact that even when a person wants to forgive, it is not always so simple. According to the Mishnah, the prayer uttered by the injured party for the offender is not only an indication that the injured person has given his forgiveness – an enlightening fact that is important in its own right – but beyond this, I believe that the very act of prayer can help a person forgive and overcome the injury he has experienced.  It is very difficult to shake off resentment for a hurt suffered, even if we really want to.  This can be proven quite simply.  Consider the following case:  A person hurts his friend, asks for forgiveness and the offended friend gives his forgiveness. If a short while later the same offender should hurt his friend again, it can only be expected that the offended party will not shake off the offense as easily as he did the first time.  Despite the initial forgiveness, the first offense leaves its mark and cannot be erased.  I don’t think we can expect the offended to react any other way.

In my view, our Sages wish to give the issue of asking for and granting forgiveness a different dimension, one that bypasses the problem posed above.  My commentary will attempt to bring the two contradicting approaches mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Tosefta somewhat closer:

When I am told I have to pray for a person who has asked me for forgiveness, I have to sit myself down and ask myself:  What do I wish for the person who has hurt me?  Am I angry at him to such an extent that I want his life to be miserable?  Indeed, I am still hurt; truth be told, if he were to hurt me again, I would add this new injury to the previous one, and my initial forgiveness would not erase the incident from my mind.  However, I still understand that he is sorry for what he did; I really do want to make things right again; I really do wish him all the best in life.  I am even willing to pray to God and ask him to fulfill that wish.  

In the prayer recited at the start of Yom Kippur – Tefilla Zakah – we say as follows:  “May no person be punished on my account” (in the siddur of the SHLAH HaKadosh, this verse also appears before the Shma Yisrael prayer recited when going to sleep).  Even when it is difficult to forgive, the understanding that refusing to forgive causes the other party pain puts into motion the wheels of forgiveness.  Consequently, two things happen: The first is the realization that despite the injury, one can still wish the offender well and want him to be happy.  This, in turn, circumvents the inability to forgive wholeheartedly.  Secondly, the very act of praying for the good of the person who has asked to be forgiven can trigger a process which culminates in full forgiveness.  In light of this, we might suggest a possible ‘forgiveness track’ even when there was no explicit apology on the part of the offender. 4

In conclusion, we have presented a new and surprising model of prayer.  In most cases, prayer is perceived as a unidirectional act: one talks to another entity and asks for something.  This new type of prayer offers a new perspective.  Instead of a monologue, prayer becomes a dialogue, and perhaps even a multilogue.  Prayer is intended to arouse action in this world, and there is no need to define the exact parties involved in this dialogue.  In the case of a dispute where forgiveness has to be initiated – the forgiver can also impact the situation through prayer, not only the one asking for forgiveness 5.

This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782

  1.   In other words – pays him.
  2.  Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 2, Halachot 9-10
  3. Interestingly, Sefer Chassidim quotes this Tosefta as is (chapter 360), and seems to regard it as compulsory behavior.
  4.  See also the words of the MAHARSHAL (Yam shel Shelomo, Yevamot, Chapter 8), who also tries to reconcile between the approaches of the Mishnah and the Tosefta, and concludes that full atonement from God can also be achieved if the offended party prays for the offender.  Therefore, the forgiving party is obliged to pray for the friend who has asked for forgiveness after the former has been appeased.
  5.  See also Likutei MOHARAN, Chapter 119, concerning a sick person who needs heavenly mercy.  He can only get that mercy if he himself shows compassion, as is written “And He shall give you mercy and show you compassion.”  There is a similar model here – the need to put into motion a certain action if one wishes to enjoy the effects of such action.  Perhaps it is not without reason that the Tosefta itself connected the laws of Tefilla to this verse.
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