Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • The Laws of Ben Adam LeChavero
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Lessons on Forgiveness

Is it truly possible to forgive someone who has insulted you? Can one who truly regrets having made someone feel bad ever really wipe away the pain that the other one felt and still feels?


Rabbi Chaim Schreiber

Elul 5 5781
Translated by Hillel Fendel

Background: The Talmud (Tr. Taanit 20a-b) recounts a story in which R. Elazar ben R. Shimon was returning home from a long period of Torah studies and was quite pleased with himself for having studied so much. He met a man who was very ugly, and talked to him in an insulting manner. The man told R. Elazar, "If you have complaints about my appearance, go tell my Maker how ugly is the utensil He made." R. Elazar realized that he had sinned, and begged for forgiveness. The man refused to forgive. Only after they entered a town together, and the ugly man told the townspeople what the rabbi had done, and they asked him to forgive the rabbi, did he grudgingly agree to do so.

Question: In the story of the ugly man and the rabbi, he ugly man didn't really forgive him, but rather sought to appease the townsmen. The story ends with R. Elazar seemingly criticizing the ugly man for having been stubborn in not forgiving, without any criticism of R. Elazar himself for haughtiness and having treated the man not nicely.

My questions are: Is it truly possible to forgive someone who has insulted you? Can one who truly regrets having made someone feel bad ever really wipe away the pain that the other one felt and still feels? Perhaps we should demand of the one who was hurt to "get out of it already" and forgive and forget? And why is the message of the story that we must be flexible, instead of that we should be careful not to make others feel bad, or that we should not judge people by how they look but rather remember that everyone was created in G-d's image?

Answer: From this fascinating story of R. Elazar and the ugly man we can learn a number of things:

1. A person must not be so stubborn and cruel that he refuses to forgive one who regrets what he did and comes to ask forgiveness for having hurt him. We must note that in this story, R. Elazar insulted the ugly man with no one around to hear him, while the ugly man "returned the favor" in front of the entire town.

2. No one is permitted to take haughty pride in what he did, or even to feel such pride in his heart - even though he may have worked very hard to learn much Torah.

3. The importance of seeking to appease. We see that R. Elazar followed the man for a long while, and refused to give up until he obtained his forgiveness by showing him that he knew he had made a one-time mistake.

4. The famed Maharal of Prague, in his Netivot Olam (Part 2, Anavah, section 7) explains that when R. Elazar said at the end of this story, "One must always be as soft as a reed, and not unyielding like the cedar," he sought to teach us that even when one has grown tall, he should act like a tall reed, and not like a tall cedar. That is, even if you have reached great heights in the merit of your Torah study, you must be like a reed, which bends over even as it grows taller – and not like a cedar that gets stronger and harder as it grows tall. We must remember this when we study Torah and it raises us to great heights: we must be like a reed that the taller it grows, the more it is able to bend over.

5. The Keren Orah writes the following amazing thought in his commentary to this passage:

"All the wisdom that one learns from Torah is, Heaven forbid, of no value if because of it, he attributes deficiencies to G-d's creations. The primary aspect of Torah study is to see – and show G-d – the value of all His creations, by shining the light of his Torah on them..."

A normal person can look at the world outside the Beit Midrash [yeshiva] and see it as full of ugliness and badness. This is what R. Elazar did, and that is why he ended up saying the negative things he said to the ugly man. But the purpose of engaging in Torah is the opposite: to see the beauty that exists in Creation, and to use the illumination that results from his Torah study to shine all around him, in order that it find favor in G-d's eyes.

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