"Teshuva (repentance) and Yom Kippur atone only for sins between man and
G-d, such as one who ate something forbidden, engaged in illicit sexual
relations, and the like. But sins between man and his fellow, such as one
who injures, curses or steals from his fellow and the like, are never
forgiven until [the sinner] repays his fellow what he owes him and appeases
him. Even if he has returned the money he is obligated to [his fellow], he
must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if he has only provoked
his fellow with words, he must appease him and entreat him until he forgives
"If his fellow does not want to forgive him, he must bring a group of three
people from among his [fellow's] friends and they entreat him and ask of
him. If [his fellow] is not appeased by them, [the sinner] brings a second
and third [such group]. If [his fellow] is [still] not appeased, [the
sinner] leaves him and moves on -- and the one who did not forgive is [now]
the sinner. If, however, [the person he wronged] is his Torah teacher, he
must come [before him] even a thousand times until he forgives him."
This week's law makes a very simple distinction. Although the Rambam spent
much time describing the power of teshuva and the efficacy of Yom Kippur,
neither of these do any good if the person you wronged is still hurting. As
merciful as G-d may be, it is simply not up to Him to forgive you the wrongs
you did someone else. For such only your aggrieved fellow can forgive you.
And if he is just too hurt to find it in his heart to excuse you, there is
little G-d can do to help. He may forgive you for the fact that in sinning
to one of His children you have sinned to Him as well, but He will not and
cannot forgive what you did to your fellow man.
In truth, this makes for a very difficult arrangement. As we know, G-d is
all-good. He is loving, forgiving, and patient with our faults. As the Sages
attest many times, He may accept -- even cherish -- our slightest act of
penitence. He may consider such teshuva satisfactory for our worst crimes.
And such decisions are exclusively in G-d's all-merciful hands. Thus, in
sins between man and G-d we can rest assured that our repentance, small and
insufficient as it may be, is accepted and effective to the maximum degree
When we sin to others, however, there are no such assurances. Say we really
do regret our past behavior. We sincerely apologize to the person we have
wronged. But he just won't budge. He's unreasonably stubborn. He couldn't
care less that you really regret your past behavior. He just doesn't want to
hear from it; you can stew in your own sinfulness as long as you live for
all he cares. What do you do? Is there no recourse other than somehow
reaching your bitter, obstinate fellow?
(It's true, as the Rambam explained (based on Talmud Yoma 87a), at a point
you "leave him and move on." If I've done everything in my ability to
demonstrate my sincerity, at a point I no longer need concern myself with my
fellow's intransigence (provided he's not my Torah teacher). Yet, as we also
saw, I must make great efforts till that point is reached. My goal is to
reach my fellow and attain his forgiveness on his terms -- regardless of his
But in truth, the idea behind this is a very important one. If my religion
and my repentance are between me and G-d alone, it's quite comfortable. I
know -- and this is 100% true -- that G-d loves me unconditionally and just
the way I am. He knows deep down I have a pure and beautiful soul which
wants nothing other than closeness to Him. He knows about me just what I
know about myself: that deep down I really am a good person -- even if in
behavior I don't always live up to my ideals. Sure G-d wants me to improve,
but He understands. He knows that my slips are not who I really am and how I
really want to be.
In a sense, this attitude is wonderful and very healthy. It gives a person a
secure sense of self-esteem and acceptance. Even when I slip I know I am not
a failure. I am still an inherently great human being, just one who must be
a little more careful.
The problem, however, should be self-evident by now. That warm and fuzzy
feeling of closeness to G-d can engender such smugness that it will be very
hard to shake myself out of my complacency, to look at myself harshly and
critically and recognize just how much work and improvement is before me.
But I'm great! I am G-d's beloved! And the problem is exactly that: the very
truth of such an attitude can do me in, and keep me from truly realizing my
Then enter other people, with all their faults, foibles, and idiosyncrasies.
Most folks out there (short of our mothers; certainly not our wives) do
*not* love and believe in me so unconditionally. They may very well not be
able to stand me. And this adds an entirely new dimension of challenge to my
life. I now need to earn their approval -- and attain their forgiveness if
I've somehow managed to rub them the wrong way.
When it's between me and G-d, it's all love and acceptance -- with a little
fine print that I really ought to be better. Once other human beings are
added to the mix, however, it's a whole new ball game. I need to outgrow my
own perspective. I need to realize that as perfect as I am in my (and G-d's)
eyes, other folks just don't see things that way (and they too are wonderful
in G-d's eyes). And I must grow. I must see beyond my own way of viewing the
world and understand others for whom they are, what they value, and what
they can't stand. I must leave that comfortable cocoon where all was
self-centered smugness and see myself in the same harsh and sometimes
antagonistic light others see me. And I must surmount that most difficult
task of all -- learn to live with other human beings.
This in a word is why the Torah places such emphasis on obtaining the
forgiveness of my fellow. This is the only true path to self-growth, to grow
out of my own shell and to learn to understand and regard the perspectives
of other human beings, to learn to view myself with the stark objectivity I
After creating Adam, G-d said, "It is not good that man be alone; I will
make a helpmate for (lit., 'opposite') him" (Genesis 2:18). G-d then
proceeded to put Adam to sleep, fashioning a wife for him out of a part of
his body (precisely which part is a matter of dispute).
We tend to think G-d's rationale for creating Eve was to alleviate Adam's
loneliness. Man was "alone" and clearly in need of some company.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig, however, observed that Rashi (R. Shlomo
Yitzchaki; great Torah and Talmud commentator of 11th Century France ), in
his commentary to that verse explains somewhat differently -- and eye-openingly:
"It is not good that man be alone: In order that [the creatures of the
world] not say there are two independent beings -- G-d is unique in the
upper spheres without a mate, and this one is unique in the lower ones
without a mate."
Thus, the reason for Adam to have a wife was not to mollify his loneliness.
It was so that no one -- Adam chief among them -- would mistake Adam for a
whole, self-contained being. (According to the Sages, Adam was originally
created complete -- with both male and female aspects. The creation of Eve
was more a dividing of man into his male and female halves than an act of
creation per se.) If Adam had only himself, everything in life would be on
his own terms. He would have no sense of a need for and interdependence upon
others. All would be viewed according to his own needs and from his own
selfish perspective. He would be all there was to his reality; he would be god.
Enter a wife and everything changed -- big time. We can describe the holy
bond of marriage in all sorts of romantic, spiritual and metaphysical ways
-- and there's certainly truth to all of that, but a great deal of marriage
is simply having a wife to cut a person down to size. Without a wife I'm
god. Everything is from my own selfish, self-centered, childish perspective.
With one I am forced to realize that there are needs, wants and perspectives
outside of me. As close as husband and wife strive to become, ever since
Adam and Eve each partner is on the outside -- viewing the other from the
more objective without. And so, they each must not only learn to become more
considerate; they must endeavor to understand the wants and needs of others,
and learn to live in peace with those outside of themselves.
(Based in part on a lecture heard from R. Yitzchak Berkovitz