11: Forgiveness

  • Rav Ezra Bick

 

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This week's shiurim are dedicated
in memory of Mrs. Cela Meisels, Tzerka Nechama bat Shlomo,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 14th of Tevet.

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            The sixth berakha asks for forgiveness:

 

Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned;

Forgive us, our King, for we have transgressed,

For you pardon and forgive.

Blessed be You, gracious, who greatly forgives.

 

            The previous berakha asked for help in repentance. The Sages chose to separate these two requests - for repentance and for forgiveness - into two distinct berakhot. Based on what I tried to explain in the previous shiur, the request for repentance is a request for healing and repair, an expression of our desire to be able to support the spirit of God that should be within us. We are asking to come close to God. This berakha is asking for something else, for forgiveness and pardon. Sin contaminates the spiritual personality and makes it impossible for the sinner to be close to God. Sin also is a crime, and the doctrine of reward and punishment - in other words, of Divine justice - mandates a response from God, for "the Judge of the whole world does justice." To avoid the punishment, we ask God to forgive. Because these are two very different requests, one based on our internal spiritual welfare, and the other referring to our physical well-being, the Sages wanted it to be clear that we should not confuse the two. More importantly, perhaps, each request in the Shemona Esrei represents a distinct NEED of Man. The Sages wished us to understand that the need to be close to God is independent of the need not to be punished by God - and in fact should be prior to it. The need for repentance is not dependent on the need to avoid punishment, although the second may very well be dependent on the fulfillment of the first.

 

            The berakha itself is very straightforward. I would like to comment on two points.

 

A. Selicha, Mechila, and Kappara

 

            There are three terms used to describe the intended result that we request when repenting, three actions that we ask God to do. They are "selicha, mechila, and kappara." The three terms are nearly inseparable, for instance in the Yom Kippur prayers (where forgiveness is the central theme). In our berakha, however, kappara is absent. In order to understand why, we have to understand the significance of each term.

 

1. Selicha - selicha means not holding a grudge, not feeling affronted or aggrieved. If someone is angry with you, you would ask him to forgive you, to be "soleach." To ask God for selicha is to ask Him not to be angry with us, to change His attitude towards us, even though that attitude is justified. To understand why God should be angry when we sin, we must realize that every sin is an affront to God, who is Creator and King. This does not mean that God has a fragile ego, or is easily insulted. The "anger" and "affront" here is objective - within every sin is an act of rebellion, of throwing off the "yoke of heaven;" and the proper reaction of objective justice to such an act is what we, in our subjective psychological lives, feel as a sense of hurt. The sin has a personal aspect - God has commanded you, has treated you as worthy of His Torah, has entered into a covenant with you, and you have defiled and abrogated that covenant. Aside from the objective wrongdoing, an act against what is right, there is a personal sin AGAINST GOD. In our language, we would say that God takes the sin personally, unlike a judge in a human court, who dispenses justice without any personal stake in the matter. The remedy to this reaction of God is selicha, forgiveness. God is asked to not let our actions affect his feelings towards us.

 

2. Mechila - mechila is a word borrowed from a legal context. If you owe someone money, but he waives the need to repay, this is called mechila - not forgiving but foregoing. It does not interest us how the creditor feels about the debt, but only whether he waives the debt itself, thereby freeing you from the need to pay. In fact, the word itself is neutral as regards insult and injury - one can waive (be "mochel") debts that arise in a purely civil context; e.g., if one borrowed money. When one who has the right to demand redress or payment waives that right, thereby freeing the debtor from the expected consequences, this is called mechila.

 

            In the context of sin, mechila refers directly to the punishment. This is based on the idea that the punishment for a sin is inherent in the sin itself, as repayment is inherent in borrowing. One who sins incurs a debt, redress is necessary to set things right again. This is the principle of pure justice. We feel this when we read of someone who committed a crime and managed to avoid ever paying for it - our hearts tell us that something is wrong here, unjust, not right in the general order of things. This is different from selicha in regards the nature of sin itself - we are not looking at sin as a personal affront to God, but as an objective act of wrong, which must be paid for so that justice be done. God, in this picture, is not the lawgiver who has been "insulted" by my ignoring Him, but the judge, who is in charge of seeing that objective justice be done. As the first Jew discovered, God is "the judge of all the world" (Genesis 18,25). If we ask for mechila, we are requesting that God "waive" the payment of sin, not demand it of us. As opposed to selicha, which occurs within God's attitude, mechila occurs in God's relationship with us and frees us from an obligation in regard to Him. If one obtains mechila, he does not "owe" God anything anymore.

 

3. Kappara - Kappara is fundamentally different from the previous two terms. Kappara means "atonement." The object of atonement, that which is changed as a result, is not God (His attitude, as in selicha) or God's demands of us (His demands, as in mechila), but Man and the sin itself. Objects which have been defiled by sin need kappara to return to a state of purity. In fact we find the concepts of atonement and purity often joined. The famous verse which concludes the Yom Kippur (Day of ATONEMENT) service in the Torah reads: "For on this day He shall atone for you from all your sins, before God shall you be purified." Atonement is purification from sin. R. Akiva had the following saying:

 

Fortunate are you, Israel, before whom are you purified and who purifies you - your Father in Heaven, as is written, "I shall pour over you pure waters and you shall be purified" (Ez. 36,25 ). And it is written, "The hope ('mikve') of Israel is God" (Jer. 17,13). Just as a mikve purifies the defiled, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel. (Yoma 85b)

 

            This is based on the idea that sin is not just a historical fact which engenders punishment from the just King, but an internal defilement of man's purity, of the tzelem elokim (the image of God). A person who sins has a corrupted personality, a tainted character, and a polluted soul. He has not only done sin, he is SUNK in sin. Kappara is restoration of the sinner himself. This is reflected in another difference between selicha and mechila, on the one hand, and kappara on the other. If you sin against me, I can offer you a pardon and forgive. I can grant selicha and mechila. But only God can effect kappara, for it is a miracle of healing for the ailing soul. It requires more than a decision to have kappara - God must act and change a fact of the world; not a natural, physical fact to be sure, but a spiritual one. When one asks for kappara, one is asking for REDEMPTION, to be saved from an oppressive and tyrannical evil that has conquered one's being.

 

            Hence, I believe, kappara is not mentioned in this berakha, not because it is not important, but because it will appear in the next berakha, the berakha of "geula" (redemption). As we shall see then, the request for redemption expressed in that berakha is not specifically referring to political oppression, but includes spiritual trouble as well. The oppression of sin will be the subject of that request as least as much as any physical trial to which one might be subjected.

 

            This, of course raises the question why the Sages separated the two berakhot. The answer to that question mainly lies in understanding the next berakha, for which you are going to have to wait until after Pesach. But even now, we should emphasize one point. The contents of each berakha are not based on a commonality of effects, so that selicha, mechila and kappara would be naturally grouped together, but on a commonality of need. Each berakha expresses a single, distinct, basic need of Man. Although sin underlies all three of the processes we have been discussing, and although in terms of the effect, they are closely related, from the perspective of the need from which the prayer arises, kappara is a very different thing than selicha and mechila. The latter two arise from man's need to ensure his welfare, from his need to be secure and even prosperous. Sin threatens his well-being, for God is angry with him and threatens punishment. Kappara, though, arises from man's inner spiritual need to be whole, to be healthy in spirit. The "problem" it comes to solve is internal. The need for redemption is completely different than the need for security. Therefore these two requests, which refer to two completely different aspects of man, are placed in two separate berakhot.

 

B. "Who greatly forgives"

 

            The chatima of the berakha is "Who greatly forgives." This sounds like a really terrible translation. I plead guilty - I don't even know what "greatly forgives" means. But then, I think that "ha-marbeh l'sloach" does not, on first glance, make a lot of sense either. Literally translated, it would read, "who forgives a lot," or "who forgives often." What does that mean? Why is this the only berakha where the attribute of God in the chatima is described as happening often, or as expressing an excess of God's power?

 

            In my opinion, the "ha-marbeh" here means that the ability of God to forgive is endless, infinite. "Ha-marbeh l'sloach" means that God forgives endlessly, without limit, as much as is needed, if He so desires. We wish to place no limits on God's merciful forgiveness; we do not wish to imply or even hint that there could be a limit on it.

 

            Now, the more metaphysically inclined among you will surely protest that none of God's attributes are limited. God's power is infinite, in all respects. What is so special or noteworthy about forgiveness?

 

            The answer, I believe, is that every other attribute of God to which we refer in the Shemona Esrei, in our requests for assistance, does not NEED to be infinite. Since the world which we are asking to be changed is finite, God does not need an infinitude of power in order to change it and correct it. The problems may be immense, but nonetheless, by virtue of the fact that the world and everything in it is created, it is finite in scope and hence can never pose more than a finite problem for God. The religious doctrine of the infinity of God derives first and foremost from creation itself, which was ex nihilo, out of nothing. There, and only there, there was no proportion between the problem (non-existence) and the solution (the world). As we all know, anything divided by nothing is equivalent to infinity. But since creation, God is dealing only with finite problems. Hence when we turn to Him to solve our problems and fulfill our needs, we do not have to specify that He is of infinite resource.

 

            There is one exception within the world to this sweeping generalization. There is one problem within the world where the God who will solve it must be of infinite resource in order to ensure in advance the certainty of solution. That is the problem of sin.

 

            Since man has free will, he is capable of unlimited evil, even as he is capable of unlimited good. As we have stated in the past, the upper limit of man's development is nothing less than God, i.e., infinity. But the necessary balance between good and evil which results in freedom of the will implies that the lower limits of his depravity be also unlimited. Just as we regularly declare that no matter how far man has fallen he can still repent and return, so too, no matter how far he has fallen, he can do even more evil. If that were not so, he could not repent at that point either. Hence, evil in this world is, in principle, potentially endless. Therefore, God who is our answer to our own evil and sin, is He who is "marbeh l'sloach." Accordingly, the proper translation for this name of God would be "who can always forgive more, whose power of forgiveness derives from an unlimited fount." It is necessary to emphasize this in the chatima of the berakha, because I will only turn to God who can solve any problem with which I will approach Him. In the case of this problem, the problem of evil, that means that I must know and reiterate that His forgiveness is endless.

 

[Back in the second berakha, Gevurot (shiur no.5), we explained the phrase "rav lihoshia" (who redeems much) as referring to the fact that God's power is not of this world, but above and beyond anything within the world. That was in the introductory berakha where I explain why I am approaching Him with my problems. In the individual requests, there is no need to address God as infinite when bringing a finite problem to His attention. Only sin is different, since it derives from an infinite fount of its own, the power of free will.]

 

            This is not merely the knowledge of limitless potential, providing assurance that any future sin, no matter how great, is also within God's power of forgiveness. The nature of forgiveness in every single case derives from this infinite power in actuality. This is true for two reasons.

 

a. Every sin, even a "little" one, results from man's power of free will, which is unlimited. The sin itself may be finite, but it by definition is an expression of an unlimited power. Hence, the remedy must also derive from an unlimited power. If one concentrates on the sin itself, this may not be true, but from the perspective of the root and cause of sin, the battle is between infinite resources.

 

b. When free will is used to sin, it calls in question the very creation of the world. The world was created by God, as an expression of His infinite and omnipotent will. Everything that exists, exists because God wills it. In principle, nothing can exist against God's will. Yet - and this is the mystery of free will, the mystery of the image of God in which man was created - evil exists. Logically, the existence of sin should result immediately in its non-existence, and the non-existence of the sinner as well, for by going against the will of God it negates its own metaphysical basis. So the existence of evil impugns the infinity of God by its very existence. The forgiveness of sin, its casting into oblivion, is a return to the purity and totality of the moment of creation, when everything is in accordance with God's will. "And God said..... and it was so." The power of forgiveness is therefore the power of creation ex nihilo, and hence, even for one sin, it derives from "He who greatly forgives."