The Rambam in Hilchos T’shuvah, The Laws of Repentance, based on the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah (17b) and Yoma (85b), famously rules that Yom Kippur is only for the cleansing of those sins that are between man and G-d; but those between man and his fellow man can only be forgiven if the antagonist receives forgiveness from the aggrieved partner. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, early 19th century commentator on the Talmud, explains that with sins between man and G-d, Hashem is the litigant; and as a “victim,” He is in a position to forgive. But with sins between man and fellow man, Hashem is the judge and He needs to weigh who is the correct party between the two disputants. Until one comes clean, admits guilt, and apologizes, a favorable judgment cannot be rendered.
This, of course, is quite logical. The problem is, however, how is one supposed to know who is right and who is wrong? I know that in most of my arguments, whether they are personal, religious, or political, I am convinced of the righteousness of my ways. I would not maintain my positions if I did not believe in them. While the next person may think I’m a radical in one direction or another, I’m comfortable that I am traveling the Golden Path.
The Chazal (Talmudic sages) state in Eiruvin (19a), “The wicked, even at the mouth of Gehinnom do not repent.” What a statement! How could the wicked not repent when they see the fires of purgatory right before their eyes? Are they that masochistic? Are they that self-absorbed? Are they that stupid?
The answer is simple: No one thinks of him/herself as wicked: “I am right. I am justified. Everyone else is wrong.”
This is true with all people and with all matters: “I feel strongly convinced that my religious approach is right and yours is wrong. Don’t confuse me with sound arguments. I am convinced that my political decisions are correct. Don’t try to prove otherwise with facts. You deserved the insult. You deserved the slap in the face. I was right and you were wrong.”
So how are we supposed to figure out who owes whom an apology? I think you owe me one and you are equally sure I owe you one. How do we clean our interpersonal slate before Yom Kippur?
Some decisions are proven with time. For example, religiously or politically, let’s see what happens eventually. If down the road one side yields good results, and the other disastrous, the truth is borne out. But even that’s not simple. We have seen the ravages of non-Torah movements as it gives way to the radical left, and it loses generations of its children to assimilation and intermarriage.
Yet, if you ask Reform or Conservative leaders what they think, surely they will justify the results or might even claim that this represents the maturation of their philosophy.
A great case in point is the attitude with the COVID crisis. It is abundantly clear that those communities that were dismissive of the restrictions relating to the coronavirus suffered immense human losses. Yet these very same people have remained carefree as this awful virus makes a comeback here and in Israel. Can you explain this? I can’t.
While I can assert that my political assessments both regarding American and Israeli issues have been proven correct, I am sure my opponents will prove otherwise with equal vigor (except, of course, that I am correct).
As a rabbi, I have surely made decisions that may have proven to be wrong. I may have criticized individuals improperly, surely as they have criticized me with similar justification. As an individual, I may have hurt someone; but how am I to know if I was wrong – that I owe the other person an apology?
Looks like I have come full circle without a reasonable solution. I believe, at the end, we need to turn to the famous but strange passage in the Gemara Avodah Zarah (17a). There we are told of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya who was known to have frequented countless harlots throughout the world. At one point, he realized the error of his ways. Rabbi Elazar appealed to heaven and earth, mountains and valleys, to plea for mercy on his behalf. However, he was rejected by all of them. Finally, Rabbi Elazar placed his head between his knees and cried out: “I see my repentance is entirely dependent on me!” – whereupon he gasped a last breath and expired. In response, a Heavenly voice cried out: “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya is welcome to the World to Come!”
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, in referring to this story, asked why is it that he is referred to as Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya; after all, this is the only time he is mentioned in the Talmud, and not in the most flattering manner? How did such an unsavory individual earn the appellation rebbe (rabbi)? The Rav explained that indeed he was a rebbe; he was the rebbe of t’shuvah, the master of repentance.
In the final analysis, we must be honest with ourselves. No one knows better than our own selves if we sinned against someone else. Once we do come to that realization, we must be “man enough” to own up to it and seek forgiveness. That is real t’shuvah. With that attitude, you can’t go wrong.
I wish everyone a K’sivah V’Chasimah Tovah – a year in which honesty with Hashem and our fellow man will bring us the ultimate Redemption, which we could surely use. I know I’m right about that!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.