By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
No matter one’s liturgical custom, the theme of forgiveness is uppermost in the consciousness of every Jew. Some beseech the Almighty for His forgiveness; others focus upon obtaining forgiveness from those whom they have – or may have – offended during the course of the past year. One way or the other, forgiveness is our dominant concern at this time of year.ince the beginning of this month, the month of Elul, Sephardic communities have been reciting selichot, prayers petitioning the Almighty for his forgiveness. Ashkenazic communities, following their custom, delay the recitation of these petitionary prayers until the week before Rosh Hashanah.
I searched this week’s parsha – Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) – and found quite a few hidden references to our central theme, one of which I will share with you.
There is a passage in this week’s Torah portion which, far from exuding a spirit of forgiveness, reflects almost inexplicable harshness. Near the very beginning of our parsha, is the passage that deals with the ben sorer u’moreh, the wayward and defiant son. It reads:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town…They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst…” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
There is no trace of forgiveness in these verses. Our Sages questioned the fairness of such a harsh punishment for such a young lad. Rashi, following Talmudic sources, reasons that this boy is not being punished for his current behavior. Rather, this behavior is indicative that he is headed for a life of great criminality.
We find, however, one ray of hope in this passage to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 88b: “This wayward and defiant son, this ben sorer u’moreh, if his parents wish to forgive him, he is forgiven.” At first blush we wonder about this leniency. The text demands that we eliminate this potential murderous hazard from our midst. Why should parental mercy be allowed to endanger the welfare of society?
One explanation is provided by Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, in Maayanei HaChaim (Wellsprings of Life). He argues that whereas it can generally be assumed that a young man so wayward and so defiant can never overcome his perverse tendencies, such an assumption must be abandoned if experts can testify that he can be rehabilitated. Asks Rabbi Chaim, “What greater experts can there be than this boy’s own parents?” They know him better than anyone else and if they forgive him, it must be that they have detected in him the capacity to shed the passions of youth which have heretofore led him astray.
This is one lesson of forgiveness. If you know a person well, you know that he can change his ways, and hence merit our forgiveness.
During my career as a psychotherapist, I learned that forgiveness changes the behavior of the person who is forgiven. People who have offended others are often so moved by the fact that those others have forgiven them that they commit to a future of exemplary behavior. Forgiving the offender ennobles him, and sends him a message that enables him to correct his past habits. Consider the following verse from Psalms, as explicated by the commentator Abraham ibn Ezra. The verse is Psalm 130:4, recited during the period from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur: ”But with You there is forgiveness; therefore, You are feared.”
In my volume of essays on the Book of Psalms, I phrased the difficulty of this verse: “How does God’s forgiveness lead to our fear of Him? Quite the contrary; one would think that we would be less fearful of a forgiving God, knowing that he would not punish us, but would readily forgive us.”
And here is how I presented ibn Ezra’s response: “He points out that if sinners were convinced that there was no forgiveness for their iniquities, they would persuade themselves that repentance is hopeless. Why reform one’s ways if one was damned to punishment anyway? Precisely the fact that God does forgive removes that hopelessness from them. They realize that if, out of fear of God, they approach Him and beg His forgiveness, they can be hopeful of attaining it. The fact that God forgives…motivates repentance and personal change.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.