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To Err Is Human, to Forgive Is Divine

We have all heard of the proverb mentioned in the title above. It is attributed to Alexander Pope who wrote it in a poem in 1711. Typically, it is interpreted to mean that we all make mistakes as individuals. However, when it comes to forgiveness, many of us would rather hold on to our hurts, our resentments and our anger than forgive the one who has done us wrong. Forgiveness is apparently an attribute that only God is expected to be capable of. Does forgiving only benefit the one who has done us wrong by absolving him of responsibility? What does it do for us as the forgiver? What is there to be gained by forgiving?

The Gemara in Yoma (87B) relates the story of how Rav was beginning a lecture. Just as he was getting started, in walked R’ Chiya and settled in his seat. Rav started his lecture again. A few minutes later, in walked Bar Kappara. Rav started his lecture one more time. Five minutes into the third go-around at his lecture in walked R’ Shimon. Rav graciously said, “We just started” and began his shiur from the beginning again. Ten more minutes go by and in walks R’ Chanina. This time Rav had enough. He did not start from the beginning again but kept on lecturing. R’Chanina felt deeply insulted. He burned with resentment. After all, he was a scholar with a renowned reputation and felt he deserved better treatment.

Rav, being a gracious man, later approached R’ Chanina and begged his forgiveness on Erev Yom Kippur. R’ Chanina refused to forgive him. Rav came back again the next year on Erev Yom Kippur and begged his forgiveness again. R’ Chanina refused. Rav did this year after year for 13 years in a row. R’ Chanina never yielded and never forgave him.

The Gemara asked why did R’ Chanina act this way? After all, Rava was quoted as saying that anyone who is willing to forgive and forget, all his transgressions are forgiven himself.

There is a lesson to be learned in this anecdote. Being consumed by bitterness and resentment is not a way to live productively. When a person dwells on his anger and resentment it can only lead down a path of misery and depression where all one feels is victimized and powerless.

Instead, forgiveness is a way to actually free oneself. When we forgive others we are free of the heavy weight that anger and resentment can bring to bear. Forgiveness of ourselves and others allows us to live a more satisfying and fulfilled life. It allows us to move beyond the negative feelings that might otherwise keep us stuck in that dark place. Forgiveness does not mean that one has to accept the inappropriate behavior of another nor does it mean we have to forget. It simply means granting oneself permission to move on, because, after all, that is what is best for ourselves.

Every Yom Kippur the strip of red wool tied to the scapegoat would turn white (Yoma 66b). This signified that Hashem had forgiven everyone of their sins. It was a joyous occasion, a fresh start to a new year. At this time of year we need to remember Rava’s admonition that all our transgressions are forgiven if we are willing to forgive and forget in regards to our fellow men. May we all learn the divine lesson, be courageous and forgive ourselves and others as we start the new year. After all, it is really what is in our best interest. Gemar chatima tova wishes to all.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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