By Rabbi Elchonon Feldman, Bushey United Synagogue
One of the most formidable features of Yom Kippur is found in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9), which states: “For transgressions between man and God, the Day of Atonement provides atonement, but for transgressions between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not provide any atonement, until he has pacified his fellow”.
Throughout the 25 hours of fasting, we recite in our liturgy many times: “I am the One who shall wipe out your transgressions for My sake, and I shall not recall your sins”. However, we see from the Mishnah that this opportunity for repentance and pardon can be conditional. Where we have wronged other people, we must first seek their forgiveness. Only when they pardon us will we receive forgiveness from God.
This leads to an interesting dilemma. Here we are taught that we must approach a person who we have wronged and ask for a pardon. What do we do if the individual harmed was unaware of the wrongdoing and requires further details of the offence? What if the aggrieved would like to know what exactly was said or done that was hurtful, and will not forgive otherwise?
Perhaps the initial perspective on this is that we should disclose all the details – after all, our repentance is riding on this. However, upon closer examination, complexities emerge. Informing our friend that they have been wronged is hurtful; they trusted us and we in some way betrayed that trust. Providing further details of our iniquity towards them may exacerbate these feelings even further, as could listing the ramifications of our actions.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) discusses this very issue and concludes that if the injured party would gain nothing beyond further pain, one should not be forthcoming (whilst of course resolving to improve our behaviour towards the injured party). This applies even if forgiveness may never be given and atonement therefore never received – “we have no right to injure others so as to gain our own pardon from God”.
Yom Kippur is not just about the past. It is a day of commitment towards the future as well. As we have seen, past actions cannot always be fixed. Yet our commitment to improved future interpersonal conduct – where forgiveness between people will consequently no longer be needed – is a noble aspiration for the year ahead.