As we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness, it is an opportune time to think about the art of forgiveness.

Some questions that come to mind are:

  1. Why forgive?
  2. How to forgive?
  3. Why and how to ask for forgiveness?
  4. How can you know if you are forgiven?
  5. How to forgive yourself?

Why should one forgive?

Basically, because it is a mitzvah, a divine command. The Torah explicitly forbids us to take revenge or to bear grudges (Leviticus 19:18). It also commands us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (ibid. 19:17).

What is the difference between vengefulness, and bearing a grudge?What is the difference between vengefulness, nekamah, and bearing a grudge, netirah? In the Talmud (Yoma 23a) we find the following definitions: An example of revenge is when I ask my friend to lend me something and he doesn’t, and I repay him in kind when he asks to borrow something of mine. An example of bearing a grudge is when I ask my friend to lend me something and he declines, and then, when he asks me to lend him something that he needs, I say, “When I asked to borrow your lawnmower, you didn’t agree. I, however, am not like you; I will accede to your request.”

Either one of these attitudes is expressly prohibited by the Torah. True strength is expressed by overcoming the instinct of revenge and being able to forgive.

But, how does one acquire the ability to forgive?

There are two ways:

1. Act in a way that ignores your instinct for revenge. By overcoming your desire for revenge and to “even out the score,” and behaving as if nothing happened, you will weaken or even eliminate the negative feelings that you have towards that person. When one does not nourish negative feelings, they lose strength and eventually disappear.

2. Reconfigure the way you perceive the cause for your ill feeling. Let me explain how this is done.

Our sages teach us that anger is akin to idol-worship.

Why is this so?

One generally gets angry with someone for having done something bad against him. Invariably, there are three necessary factors: 1) someone 2) did something bad 3) against me. The reasoning is obvious: 1) If it wasn’t that person who is responsible for my suffering, I would have no reason to be upset with him. 2) If something good was done, I have no reason to be angry. 3) If something bad was done against someone else that I don’t care about, why would I get angry?

Let us continue this line of reasoning.

Once I am aware that everything that happens in the world in general, and in my life in particular, is by divine providence and hence for my benefit, I have no reason to get angry with anybody. No one can choose to do me harm if it wasn’t decreed beforehand by G‑d. Once G‑d decrees that harm should befall me, G‑d forbid, anyone can now freely choose to be the agent to carry out the decree. So, when something painful happens in my life, instead of getting angry with the messenger, I should ask myself: why do I deserve this? Is it in order to test me? Is it in order to refine me? Is it a punishment? Is it an opportunity to accomplish something unexpected?

One does not decide what happens to him; one decides what he wants to do with what happens to him.

The biblical figure who personifies this attitude in an outstanding way is Joseph. His brothers had sold him into slavery . . . He spent years away from his family, languishing in an Egyptian jail because of false accusations . . . He eventually becomes the viceroy of Egypt, and finally his brothers come to Egypt and are dependent on his power and mercy. Their father, Jacob, passes away, and now the brothers fear the revenge of their brother who was so hated by them and is now so powerful . . .

One does not decide what happens to him; one decides what he wants to do with what happens to himWhat does Joseph tell them? Do not fear. Everything that happened with me was G‑d’s plan in order to bring salvation to all (Genesis 50:15–21). You were nothing more than instruments . . .

Why and how to ask for forgiveness?

Man is responsible for his actions. If someone does something that he shouldn’t have, he now has the responsibility to recognize it, regret it, decide never to do it again, admit it to the one that he mistreated, and ask for his forgiveness. (I know, it’s better not to get into this mess to begin with . . .) If all this is done with sincerity, G‑d will forgive him. But there is one important condition: G‑d does not forgive a wrongdoing that was done against another until that person forgives him first. In other words, if you do something wrong against your fellow, you are really doing a double transgression, against your fellow as well as against G‑d who forbade mistreating your fellow. Only after one has corrected the damage and has been forgiven by the one who suffered, does G‑d forgive the violation of His command.

It is difficult to ask for forgiveness, no doubt, but it is impossible to free oneself of the ballast of one’s negative actions unless one has asked for forgiveness from the one that was hurt and things were straightened out. Once you ask for and are granted forgiveness, it is a great relief. Additionally, the trauma of having to ask for forgiveness will help assure that you think twice before hurting someone again.

How can you know if you are forgiven?

In the event that I have done something wrong against my fellow, I can know that I am forgiven when I ask for forgiveness and my apology is accepted. But when transgressing G‑d’s will and asking for forgiveness, how can I tell if G‑d has forgiven me?

The answer is quite simple. G‑d forgives sincere repentance.

How, though, can I measure my sincerity?

One way is: if the opportunity to commit the same mistake under the same conditions presents itself, and you resist the temptation to do so, it is a sure sign that your repentance was sincere. You can now rest assured that G‑d has forgiven you.

How to forgive yourself?

Sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive is oneself. We have such a guilty conscience that we cannot free ourselves from it. Is it right to carry such guilt for our wrongdoings?

It depends. If it is a feeling of guilt that motivates one to grow, then it is positive and should be taken advantage of. If, however, the feeling of guilt demoralizes and depresses, then it is negative and should be disposed of, ASAP.

What can one do to rid oneself of the debilitating guilt feelings? One way is to must make use of a popular Latin American word, “mañana” (tomorrow). When a feeling of depression arises as a result of a feeling of guilt, ideally one must get rid of it immediately. If you cannot get rid of it totally and immediately, try “postponing” it. Tell the negative thought: “You are very important, but I am busy right now. Come back mañana.” It is even better to tell the thought, “Come back tomorrow at a certain time, and we will have some coffee, and I will listen to what you have to say.” The negative thought will, most likely, not show up in time . . .

The only way to overcome life’s challenges is through agility, and agility is a byproduct of joyMany tend to associate religion with guilt feelings and sadness. There is nothing further from the truth, as far as Judaism is concerned. Joy is one of the most important values of Judaism. The only way to overcome life’s challenges is through agility, and agility is a byproduct of joy. The worst enemy a Jew can have is misplaced sadness.


In conclusion, I would like to share a practical suggestion.

When the Torah (Genesis 37:24) describes the pit into which Joseph was thrown, it states that it was an “empty pit, with no water.” The obvious question is: why the redundancy? Is it not obvious that if the pit was empty, it had no water?

Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, cites the Talmud: “It was empty of water, but full of snakes and scorpions.”

Maimonides, in his Treatise on Poisons and Antidotes, explains that the poisons of snakes and scorpions are different in that the former is “hot” and kills by poisoning the blood, whereas the latter is “cold” and kills by attacking the nervous system.

The spiritual parallel of snake and scorpion venom is explained in chassidic teachings as follows. There are two attitudes that threaten the spiritual vitality of the Jew: 1) enthusiasm for that which is wrong; 2) indifference to that which is right.

What can be done to get rid of one’s own personal snakes and scorpions? Battling them is not the best option, as they will soon be replaced by others… The best method is to fill the pit with water . . .

Water represents Torah study and knowledge. The best way to protect yourself against spiritual snakes and scorpions is by filling your mind with the living waters of Torah. Water fills every crevice, leaving no room for harmful feelings of guilt and other such negative thoughts that only serve to destroy the one who harbors them.

The key is ultimately in your hands.

(For further study of the subject of depressing thoughts, their varied causes and how to rid oneself of them, see Tanya, chapters 26–34.)