In the introductory section of the Selichot service, we recite the verse from Tehillim (25:11), “For the sake of Your Name, O Lord, you shall forgive our iniquity, for it is great.” (The verse is written in the singular form – “la-avoni” – but in our Selichot prayer we change it to the plural form – “la-avoneinu.”) The final clause of this verse – “ki rav hu” (“for it is great”) – seems difficult, and has been interpreted in different ways by the various commentators. David here appears to be giving a reason for why God should forgive him, but the reason he gives – that his sinfulness is “great” – seems hardly a valid reason for why he should be granted atonement.
The simplest interpretation, perhaps, which is offered by both Ibn Ezra and Metzudat David, is that the word “ki” in this verse means not “because” (or “for”), as it normally does, but rather “even though.” Ibn Ezra cites a compelling prooftext from Sefer Shemot (34:9) when Moshe pleads with God after the sin of the golden calf to forgive the nation “ki am keshei oref hu” – literally, “because it is a stiff-necked people.” There, too, the verse is more easily understood if the word “ki” is read to mean “even though,” in which case Moshe asks God to pardon the people’s sin despite their sinfulness. Accordingly, here in Tehillim, too, it is likely that David asks God to forgive his iniquity even though “rav hu” – it is severe.
Another simple explanation is offered by Amos Chacham in his Da’at Mikra commentary, suggesting that “ki” in this verse means “which is.” In other words, David is simply asking God to forgive his iniquity “which is great.”
Rashi, however, explains differently, writing, “Ki naeh la-rav li-slo’ach avon rav” – “For it is fitting for He who is great to forgive a great iniquity.” This interpretation is taken from the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 5:8), which comments (in reference to this verse and to a verse earlier in Tehillim – “ve-nikeiti mi-pesha rav,” 19:14), “David said before the Almighty: Master of the world! You are a great God, and I – my sins are great. It is fitting for a great God to forgive great sins!” When Davis cries, “For the sake of Your Name…you shall forgive my iniquity, for it is great,” he means that God should forgive him because God’s Name is great, because it is known that God is all-mighty and all-powerful.
Chazal here are teaching us that forgiveness is a sign of greatness, not weakness. One of the impediments to forgiving those who have wronged us is our inherently healthy sense of self-worth and self-importance, which leads us to think that we need to remain angry and resentful in order to protect our dignity. If we forgive those who have done us harm, we may intuitively feel, then we are somehow failing to uphold our stature. Since we see ourselves as important, we instinctively find it necessary to resent and perhaps even punish those who have infringed upon our honor and shown us disrespect and disregard. Chazal here teach us that the exact opposite is true, that forgiveness is actually a sign of greatness. It is especially those who consider themselves important that should not be terribly bothered by insults and other offenses, because they are beyond pettiness and trivialities. If we live with a healthy sense of self-worth, then we will be more immune to resentment, because we will realize that we and our lives are simply too important for us to bother settling the score with those who have wronged us. Just as God’s greatness makes it more likely for Him to forgive our wrongdoing, our self-esteem should lead us to be patient and forgiving, and to see petty resentment and hostility as beneath our stature and dignity, and simply not worth our time or our attention.