November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

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Radical Apology and Radical Forgiveness

One of the richest aggadot about forgiveness is the story in Brachot (27b-28a), when Rabban Gamliel was deposed as the Nasi because he insulted the great Rabbi Yehoshua—one time too many in the beit midrash. A brutally short recap: The sages in Yavneh overthrew Rabbi Gamliel after he publicly humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua for the third time, installing the young Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya instead. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya promptly opened the beit midrash to all comers.

Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua entered as well, soon launching into a halachic debate whether the prohibition against marrying an Ammonite convert still applied—given all the population transfers in the Middle East. After the majority sided with Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Gamliel decided to travel to Rabbi Yehoshua’s home to ask forgiveness. There, he was shocked to discover that Rabbi Yehoshua scratched out a living as a blacksmith. Rabbi Yehoshua hesitated to forgive Rabbi Gamliel, but, ultimately, did so in the merit of Rabbi Gamliel’s family. Afterwards, Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Yavneh to convince the sages to reinstate Rabbi Gamliel as Nasi.

There are entire books that can be written about this story, but for this space, let’s just consider two insights, one about seeking forgiveness and one about granting it:

Seeking forgiveness: The Dorot Rishonim (Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevy Rabinowitz) comments how inspiring it was that, even before Rabbi Yehoshua forgave Rabbi Gamliel, they could set aside their differences in order to learn Torah together. As they debated the halacha, nobody would ever know about the personal history between them. To be sure, this demonstrates how the Tannaim prioritized Torah study over their own personal perspectives. But we should also appreciate how easy it would have been for Rabbi Gamliel to leave the beit midrash and convince himself he didn’t actually need to apologize? “Didn’t we just have a ‘good discussion’ in the beit midrash? We’re talking civilly to each other, presumably, Rabbi Yehoshua already forgave me, and I can avoid that awkward conversation.” But Rabbi Gamliel avoided that temptation and traveled all the way to Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, where it turned out Rabbi Yehoshua was, indeed, still angry. Lesson: We should never presume forgiveness to avoid apologizing.

Granting forgiveness: The fact that Rabbi Yehoshua was loath to forgive Rabbi Gamliel indicates how hurt he was. But once he forgave him, the Dorot Rishonim notes that he did so completely—to the point that he went personally to convince the other Tannaim to reinstate Rabbi Gamliel! Forgiveness must be radical. Rabbi Yehoshua teaches us that even when we are hurt and forgiving is difficult, once we resolve to do so, there’s no middle ground. The urge to bear a grudge is something for us to utterly drive out.

In the zechut of fully forgiving others, may we all merit to receive the same complete forgiveness from the Ribbono Shel Olam, and be inscribed in the book of life.

Originally from Teaneck, Rabbi Noach Goldstein is a rebbe at Hebrew Theological College (“Skokie Yeshiva”) and assistant rabbi at Congregation KINS. He and his wife, Alexis, live with their family in West Rogers Park, Chicago.


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