Compassion without Theology
Chapter 2, Law 10
"It is forbidden for the person [the sinner apologizes to (see previous
law)] to be cruel and not be appeased, rather he should be easy to assuage
and hard to anger. And when the sinner asks for his forgiveness, [he should]
forgive wholeheartedly and willingly (lit., 'with willing soul'). Even if
[the sinner] distressed him greatly and sinned to him much, he should not
take revenge nor harbor resentment.
"This is the way of the Children of Israel and their upright (lit.,
'correct') hearts. Gentiles, however, of uncircumcised hearts, are not so
but instead 'his [Edom's] anger is preserved forever' (Amos 1:11). So too
does it state regarding the Giveonites, because they did not forgive and
were not appeased, 'and the Giveonites are not from the Children of Israel'
(II Samuel 21:2)."
Last week the Rambam discussed the sinner's obligation to beg the
forgiveness of the person he wronged. It is not sufficient to repent to G-d
alone. The injured party must be appeased as well -- and damages must
likewise be compensated.
This week the Rambam turns his attention to the victim, instructing him to
be amenable to the sinner's apology. If the sinner truly means it, his
victim should accept his apology wholeheartedly and be prepared to begin the
(As an aside, the customary prayer Jews recite at the start of Yom Kippur
forgiving everyone who has wronged them the past year specifically excludes
people who say 'I'll wrong him knowing he'll forgive me later.' We may
forgive generously but we have no patience for people who knowingly take us
for a ride.)
Before we look more closely at the Rambam, a quick word about the
Giveonites, whom he makes reference to at the end. We read in Joshua 9 of
the Giveonites, one of the tribes dwelling in the Land of Canaan at the time
of Joshua's conquest. In order to save themselves, they sent messengers to
the Jewish camp, deceptively claiming they came from a distant land and
asking to arrange a peace treaty with them. The Jews naively accepted their
story and agreed to an accord, failing to confer with G-d in advance. After
finding out they were tricked, Joshua abode by Israel's agreement (a curious
foreshadowing of current events, in which Israel constantly abides by
agreements with enemies who never even thought to keep their word), but
decreed upon the Giveonites eternal subservience to Israel, to serve them as
"hewers of wood and drawers of water." Intermarriage between Israel and
Giveon was likewise forbidden.
Later, in King David's time (II Samuel 21), a several-year famine occurred.
After inquiring of G-d, David found that it was the result of grievances on
the part of the Giveonites, whom King Saul had wronged. (Scripture states
that he inadvertently killed some of them although one opinion in the
Midrash states that he merely indirectly caused them to lose their source of
income. (In most societies, being without a means of support is tantamount
to death.)) David attempted to reason with the Giveonites in order to
assuage them. However, as Scripture states and the Rambam quotes, they
weren't Jewish and so did not find it in their hearts to be merciful.
Rather, they demanded that seven of Saul's descendants be hung in
compensation. The king agreed to their demand and the famine soon came to an
For the most part, the Rambam's advice is readily understandable. One issue,
however, I found very surprising -- and I'm sure many of you did as well.
What was the Rambam's point throwing in this nasty dig at the Gentiles --
claiming very self-righteously that *they're* not like *us*? They are not so
forgiving as we holy Jews are. What was the point of making such a
statement? Apart from the fact that such remarks strike us today as bigoted
and grossly politically incorrect, what place do they have in a work such as
the Mishne Torah altogether? The Mishne Torah a work on Jewish *law* --
telling us how to behave properly as Jews. Do we learn a practical lesson
from this general swipe at the "goyim"? So fine, they're not as good. Why
say it? Why did the Rambam see fit to include such a distasteful,
condescending comment in what is otherwise so concise and reasoned a book of
I would like to suggest as follows. I believe there are two bases for
bringing ourselves to forgive others. The first is basically theological.
Nothing occurs in this world if G-d does not will it -- or at least
acquiesce to it. Therefore, if my fellow hurts or insults me, there is no
real reason to resent him. The damage was meant to be. He did not do
anything G-d did not anyway want to occur. And so, there is no point venting
my rage at him. All he did was demonstrate that G-d feels I need a little
castigation. At most he volunteered to be G-d's staff of chastisement; but
ultimately the hurt came from the L-rd.
I believe, however, this is *not* the sort of reasoning the Rambam has in
mind. Our basis for getting along with others must not be theological. We
don't see someone stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, and pull
over to help because G-d said we must help load our fellow's donkey (Deut.
22:4). We do so because we *want* to help our fellow. Sure, G-d told us to
as well, but we shouldn't have to wait for G-d's command to be decent human
beings. The Talmud states, just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too
must we be (Shabbos 133b). We are taught to emulate G-d -- to actually *be*
wonderful human beings, not only to perform the actions G-d has commanded.
Here as well, I don't believe the Rambam is instructing us to be forgiving
because G-d willed my hurt upon me. That certainly may be a solid
theological basis for ameliorating my hurt, but bottom line, such cannot be
the basis for my emotions. I must actually train myself to be a merciful,
forgiving person, to act as G-d and be kindly and forgiving towards all of
(Apart from this, there is much debate among the classical commentators to
what degree every event which occurs in this world is the will of G-d.
Certainly G-d controls the course of history and He carefully measures and
records all human acts done in this world. Yet at the same time man is
granted free will to do as he pleases in this world. Will G-d stop A if he
wants to punch B in the nose? Without getting bogged down discussing the
myriad shades of opinion in such matters, it is certainly not crystal clear
that whenever A wrongs me I must see it as a direct act of G-d -- even if
G-d will certainly hold A accountable for his decision and deduct the
suffering from B's tab. (See for example II Samuel 16:10 and the commentary
of Rashi there.) In fact to me it appears that the Rambam does *not* take
G-d's control of the world so far -- see his work Eight Chapters, Ch. 8.
He appears to fall much more in the "man's free will" camp.)
The Rambam elsewhere in the Mishne Torah (Laws of Blessings 11:2) makes the
following distinction. There is a rabbinic obligation to recite a blessing
before performing most of the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah, such as
before putting on a Tallis or Tefillin, or before eating matzah on Passover.
The Rambam, without further elaboration, states that this is true only
regarding mitzvos between man and G-d, such as the examples we just cited.
However, mitzvos between man and man -- such as giving charity -- one does
not recite a blessing prior to.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig suggested the following rationale for this
distinction. Imagine if a guy came to your door asking for alms, and before
handing him the money, you say "Wait!" then look up to heaven and say
"Blessed are you, G-d... who commanded us to give charity." That would
basically demolish any possible good feelings your charity might have
engendered. What should have been an act of sympathy and care among men has
now become an act of obedience to G-d. Certainly, G-d commanded us -- and we
must obey His command even if we don't feel like it -- but clearly the true
purpose of the command is that we be caring human beings, not obedient
servants of G-d.
This too is the message of the Rambam this week -- and I believe his intent
in emphasizing the very Jewish quality of compassion. The Rambam is not
interested in making digs at other people -- even in the presumably safe
quarters of a scholarly religious work. (There are really no such safe
quarters -- today or ever before. Words, especially written ones, get out
and can and will be used against us.) Rather, the Rambam wanted to convey
what quality we are dealing with. We must see our obligation here as
exercising our particularly Jewish quality of compassion. The Talmud writes
that there are three hallmark qualities of the Jewish nation -- that they
are compassionate, bashful, and doers of acts of kindness (Yevamos 79a). And
we must take these wonderful qualities we have been endowed with and use
them towards increasing peace in the world and in our lives.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org