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Can You Forgive? Can You Be Forgiven?

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Asking for forgiveness is an admittedly difficult task. After all, no one likes to admit to their own faults or shortcomings. However, asking for forgiveness is an essential aspect of teshuva, repentance.

Teshuva is actually a process of self-evaluation and self-improvement. The Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a 12th century sage and commentator) enumerated four primary steps to the teshuva process:
  1. Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
  2. Verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.
  3. Regret the action. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others.
  4. Determine never to repeat the action. Picture a better way to handle it.
When one has caused harm to others, whether by stealing from them, embarrassing them or anything else, then teshuva also requires that restitution and reconciliation be arranged between the parties involved. The damaged party must forgive the perpetrator before Divine forgiveness is granted.

There are, however, certain tricky situations that must be handled delicately. An ancient Jewish proverb declares: "Loose tongues are worse than wicked hands." Truth is, people do the most damage to each other with their mouths. Things done with our hands, such as injuries, thefts, etc., can be repaired. Words, however, are like feathers in the wind -- they fly too fast to catch and can never be taken back. Jewish law regards lashon harah -- wicked speech, such as gossip and slander -- as one of the worst of the transgressions that one commits against fellow humans.

Here is the dilemma: Teshuva for hurting another person requires that one personally ask the other person's forgiveness. What does one do if one spoke badly about someone, in a fit of anger? Now that the two are friends once again, how does one ask properly for forgiveness?

The answer to this dilemma depends on the extent of the "damage." If the gossip itself created negative consequences, then the person must be asked directly for forgiveness. Even if no harm was done, and it is known that the person will be understanding about the incident, then forgiveness should still be asked.

However, according to the opinion of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, if informing a person that you spoke about them would result in embarrassment or hurt, it is acceptable to ask for general forgiveness, without going into detail. Indeed, causing additional embarrassment to the person might actually necessitate asking for mechila (forgiveness) once again.

As central as expressing regret and apologizing for hurting another person is to the process of teshuva, equally important is the ability to hear someone else's apology and to accept it. (Of course, the ideal situation is when one foregoes an apology altogether and simply forgives the person for hurting you.)

Jewish tradition teaches that one is only obligated to ask for forgiveness three times. After three refusals, the person is no longer held accountable for their misconduct, as he/she has demonstrated true regret. The one who will not accept a sincere apology after three requests for forgiveness is now guilty of bearing a grudge.

What is wrong with bearing a grudge against a person who really hurt you? Beyond the fact that it is a violation of a Torah prohibition (Leviticus 19:18), bearing a grudge affects the bearer psychologically. A person bearing a grudge is, in general, less happy with the world and with other people because he/she cannot get past the feeling that he/she was wronged.

Forgiveness is rather easy to bestow. And when it is done with sincerity, it is as much a gift to ourselves as it is to the person we forgive.

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