Likkutei Sichos-Parshas Chukas: Forgiveness is not lip service

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Parshas Chukas

Forgiveness is not lip service

(Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. 28 Sicha 2)

This week’s Parsha, Parshas Chukas, speaks of the episode of a snake attack on the Jewish people that led to many deaths and injuries. The Jewish people made harsh complaints against Moshe, severely criticizing him for the arduous journey they had to endure in the desert, and for the lack of proper food and water. Hashem viewed their complaint as contempt of Him and sent snakes to smite the evildoers. The Jews then repented and as a result, Hashem gave Moshe an antidote that would help heal the injured and save them from certain death. The verse states that Moshe prayed on behalf of the Jewish people. Rashi comments that from here we can learn a lesson in life that one should not be cruel in forgiving someone who offended him, as Moshe immediately prayed on behalf of the Jewish people despite them offending him. The Rebbe asks a very strong question against Rashi and as to why he chose this verse and this episode in Scripture to teach us this lesson, when both the Talmudic and Midrashic sources state that the lesson is actually learned from Avraham’s forgiveness of Avimelech. To answer this question the Rebbe delves into the various different types and qualities of forgiveness, and forgiveness with a complete heart versus forgiveness with retaining a grudge. This teaches us a great lesson in the level of forgiveness that is demanded of us, and that it is not enough to simply perform lip service and express one’s forgiveness of another, but it needs to be a forgiveness of one’s whole heart in which he retains no grudge or anger at the person. This true forgiveness benefits not only the perpetrator but also the victim, and brings him closure.


Explorations of the Sicha:

1. What is the source in Scripture for forgiving someone who wronged you?

2. Should/Must one forgive someone even if he was not asked for forgiveness?

3. Does it help to forgive someone even if you still hold a grudge against him?

4. What is considered complete forgiveness and in what circumstances is it required?

1. The source in Scripture that teaches us to forgive others for wrongdoing:

After the Jewish people traveled past Har Hahar and circumvented the land of Edom, they became tired of the travel and complained against Hashem and Moshe asking why he took them out of Egypt to die in the desert. “There is no food or water and we have reached our limit with the insubstantial bread.” As a result, Hashem smote the nation with snakes and they bit the Jewish people, and many people died. The Jewish people remorsefully came to Moshe confessing to their sin of speaking against him and Hashem. They asked Moshe to Daven for them to Hashem and remove the snakes. Moshe Davened on their behalf, and the antidote was eventually given for the plague to stop and for those who were bitten to be healed.[1]

Rashi’s commentary:

On the words, “And Moshe prayed for them” Rashi comments that “from here we learn that when someone is asked for forgiveness, he should not be cruel in his forgiveness.”

The words of the Midrash:

The source for this statement of Rashi is from the Midrash Tanchuma[2] in which it states as follows: From the above verse we learn of the humility of Moshe who did not delay asking for mercy on behalf of the Jewish people [even though they personally attacked him] and to also teach us the power of repentance, as from the moment that the Jewish people confessed to having sinned they were immediately forgiven, and the one forgiving them did not become cruel. This is similarly learned from the verse regarding Avraham in which it states[3], “And Avraham prayed to G-d [on behalf of Avimelech] and G-d healed Avimelech.”

The questions on Rashi:

After a careful reading of the words of the midrash which is the source of Rashi’s statement, several questions are raised against the commentary of Rashi:

  1. Why does Rashi state that the directive that one should forgive someone right away and not be cruel is learned from our verse here regarding Moshe if the midrash clearly states that this can also be learned from the story with Avraham and Avimelech? Why did Rashi not make this comment earlier in Parshas Vayeira regarding Avraham praying on behalf of Avimelech?
  2. Furthermore, the Mishneh[4] uses this verse regarding Avraham to teach us that when somebody injures somebody else it does not suffice to simply reimburse him for his monetary loss, but he must also ask him for forgiveness for having caused him embarrassment and shame. This is learned from the fact that even after Avimelech returned Sarah to Avraham together with many presents, he still had to pray on his behalf in order to remove the punishment from The Mishneh then further states that from this episode we also learn that if one does not forgive the perpetrator then he is considered cruel, as Avraham forgave Avimelech and prayed on his behalf. Accordingly, it is a great wonder that Rashi would choose to ignore an explicit Mishneh which states that the episode with Avraham is the source of the directive to not be cruel to forgive the perpetrator, and that Rashi would rather choose to say that it is learned from our verse regarding Moshe.
  3. A further point to add to this wonderment against Rashi is the fact that the episode of forgiveness with Avraham contains a greater novelty than the episode with Moshe. First off, the sin against Avraham was a lot worse than the sin against Moshe. Avraham’s wife was kidnapped and potentially violated which must have caused Avraham great pain, and nonetheless he forgave the perpetrator right away. This cannot be compared to the offense against Moshe which was only that they spoke against him. Hence, it is a much greater novelty to teach us that even when an offense of the type against Avraham has taken place, nonetheless one should forgive the perpetrator right away. Likewise, the forgiveness that Avraham granted was a lot more powerful than that of Moshe. As soon as Avraham prayed on behalf of Avimelech, Avimelech was immediately healed by G-d, however, in our episode with Moshe the punishment was not immediately removed and those who were smitten by the snake needed to first stare at the copper snake on the pole.

2. An attempt to answer-The request for forgiveness is specifically in our episode with Moshe:

One can possibly answer the above question against Rashi in the following way: In the episode with Avraham Scripture does not relate that Avimelech ever actually asked for forgiveness from Avraham, in contrast to the story with Moshe in which case Scripture states that the Jewish people asked him to forgive them. Furthermore, regarding Avraham not only did Avimelech not ask for forgiveness, but he even blamed Avraham for what happened. Accordingly, one can argue that Rashi chose specifically our episode with Moshe to teach us the concept that one should not be cruel to forgive, as specifically here the perpetrators asked forgiveness from the victim. Nonetheless, in truth, one can argue to the contrary, that one should specifically learn the importance of forgiveness from the episode with Avraham, as Avraham was not even asked for forgiveness in that case, and if one is to forgive someone even when they did not ask for forgiveness, certainly one should forgive someone who showed remorse and asked for forgiveness.


3. Forgiveness contains various levels and qualities:

To understand the answer to the above question we must introduce the various qualities of forgiveness that exist. It is possible for one to forgive someone on a number of levels:

  1. To exempt him from punishment: A most basic level of forgiveness is when the victim forgives the perpetrator simply to prevent him from being punished. Meaning, he still contains pain in his heart from what the person did and perhaps also retains an element of hate to the person for doing so, although for the sake of the person not getting punished, he is willing to forgive him. On this level, one only forgives the sin of the perpetrator but not the perpetrator himself.
  2. No hatred to the person: A second higher level of forgiveness is when the victim forgives him to the point that he feels no more hatred in his heart towards the perpetrator. Nonetheless, the friendship between the two has been damaged, and thus he no longer feels as friendly with the perpetrator as he did before. Meaning, while the hatred has been resolved, the love that was damaged due to the offense has yet to be repaired. On this level, one forgives not only the sin of the perpetrator but also the perpetrator himself, although a remnant of the offense still remains.
  3. Complete rejuvenation of friendship: An even higher third level of forgiveness is when the victim forgives the perpetrator to the point that not only does he not hold any hate to him, but furthermore his relationship with him becomes completely appeased, and his friendship with him returns to its original state of love. On this level, the sin is completely uprooted and erased as if it never occurred to begin with.

4. The level of forgiveness affects one’s quality of prayer on behalf of his friend:

One of the differences between the levels of forgiveness is regarding how far one is willing to go to pray on behalf of his friend to not get punished. When the entire purpose of the forgiveness is solely to say the perpetrator from punishment due to the sin, then the person only prays for the perpetrator to not get punishment for that specific sin against him. However, when one has completely nullified his hatred towards him, and certainly when the forgiveness has rejuvenated his love towards him, then he prays on behalf of his friend to not get punished for any of his sins and not just for the specific sin that he sinned against him. Likewise, he prays that his friend changes his ways and follow the path of righteousness.

This then is the difference between the forgiveness of Moshe versus the forgiveness of Avraham. When Avraham prayed on behalf of Avimelech he prayed only a behalf of Avimelech and his family, that the punishment be removed from them. He did not pray for Avimelech or his nation to repent. However, in our episode with Moshe he did not suffice with praying in behalf of those who were stricken by the snake, but rather prayed on behalf of all the Jewish people, that they should all repent and receive atonement. The purpose of the copper snake that was put on the pole was not just to heal the Jewish people but to bring them to repentance, as through them looking up to the heavens where this copper snake was found they would remember G-d and repent from their ways. Thus, Moshe showed that he completely forgave the Jewish people and was truly concerned of their well-being, as before their sin.

5. The scriptural sources for forgiveness of sin versus forgiveness of the heart:

Based on the above, we can explain why Rashi chose to learn his lesson specifically from the episode with Moshe and not from the episode with Avraham. A careful analysis shows that Rashi’s wording of not being cruel to not forgive is different than that of the Midrash and Mishneh. The wording of the Midrash and Mishneh is that “the person forgiving should not be cruel.” The cruelty here is referring to the victim, that the victim should not be so cruel to not forgive the sin of the perpetrator and cause the perpetrator to get punished. This corresponds to the first level of forgiveness. The need to have at least this first level of forgiveness is learned from the episode with Avraham, who prayed on behalf of Avimelech that he not be punished.

However, the wording of Rashi is that “he should not be cruel in his forgiveness.” This level of cruelty refers not to the person forgiving but to the quality of forgiveness, that the forgiveness should not contain cruelty, and refers to the second or third level of forgiveness mentioned above. This level of forgiveness can only be learned from the episode with Moshe who showed that he truly forgave the Jewish people with a full heart and therefore prayed on their behalf even beyond the aspect of removing the punishment. The reason that the forgiveness of the first level is referred to as cruel is because the person still maintains a hatred or anger and the like against the perpetrator, and only in the second and third level of forgiveness does one completely erase any of these feelings of grudge against the person and clean himself of all cruelty.

6. Just as we forgive others immediately so too G-d forgives us for our sins:

It states that G-d commands us to fulfill the commands that he himself keeps.[5] From this we can understand that just as G-d instructs us the Jewish people to forgive someone who wronged us, and to forgive them immediately with a complete heart, so too, G-d forgives the Jewish people in a complete and immediate fashion for all of their sins.


The divine lesson:

From the above talk we learn a very important lesson regarding forgiveness. Forgiving someone is not just lip service in which one voices to the perpetrator words of forgiveness. There must be a true forgiveness within the person’s actual heart. Forgiveness is an emotion and not a word, and therefore words alone do not suffice. The very most basic level of forgiveness is that one forgives his perpetrator to the point that he does not desire him to get punished for what he did. This level of forgiveness should be given even if the perpetrator does not ask him for forgiveness, as we learn from the episode with Avraham and Avimelech. If, however, the perpetrator shows remorse and asks for your forgiveness, then not only should you forgive him right away, but the forgiveness should be of a quality that you completely erase any anger or hatred to the person, or reach an even higher level of forgiveness where you rejuvenate your friendship with him as before. Now, how can a person be expected to forgive someone with a full heart if the person truly offended him? This indeed can only be accomplished if one is truly convinced of the remorse of the perpetrator, and one contemplates that everything that happens to him is with divine providence, and the perpetrator was a mere messenger of heaven to perform the offense. Thus, once the perpetrator has shown his true remorse, there is no longer any reason to hold a grudge against him. Reaching this level of forgiveness is not just beneficial for the perpetrator but also for the victim himself, and helps bring him closure from the episode and completely heal his pain and hurt.


[1] See Chukas 21:5-7

[2] Chukas 19; Bereishis Raba 19:23

[3] Vayeira 20:17

[4] Bava Kama 92a; See Ramam Chovel Umazik 5:9; Michaber and Tur C.M. 422; Admur C.M. Nizkei Guf Vinefesh 6

[5] Tehillim 147:19; Shemos Raba 30:9

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