5768 - #01


While the distinction between mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro and mitzvoth bein adam l’Makom is one of the most well-known methods of categorizing the Divine commandments, its practical application is, actually, quite limited. One place, though, where this distinction does play a halachic role is in the area of teshuva, repentance. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:9 states that, in regard to mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, full atonement from God demands that one also compensate the person that he/she injured and also ask for forgiveness from this person. In other words, to achieve atonement for violations of mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro, there is an additional element in the process of teshuva – one must confront the other person that he/she harmed.

             On the surface, this would seem to be understandable. It makes complete sense that teshuva would include the attempt to limit the effect of a sin; as such, it would seem proper for it to include compensation and the attempt to limit the emotional hurt to the one harmed through the attempt to appease. Yet, one must still wonder about the connection between this process of attempting to gain forgiveness from the other person and the process of teshuva, requesting forgiveness from God. While it can be expected that God would demand from a person, in the desire to gain atonement, to rectify a situation, the call to attempt to gain forgiveness from another person demands further consideration. Human beings are far from Divine, especially in their approach to those who have hurt them. The idea of approaching another, informing them of your transgression(s) against them and asking for his/her forgiveness would seem to almost be a further punishment, demanding an experience that thankfully is not necessary in gaining teshuva for the violation of a mitzvah bein adam l’Makom. Why is this course of action demanded in the process of teshuva for a violation of a mitzvah bein adam l’chaveiro? Once compensation and the attempt to rectify the effect of the sin is undertaken, why can’t the process of teshuva parallel the personal realm of teshuva that exists in the case of bein adam l’Makom?

             There is a randomness included in approaching the other. The focus of change within oneself is lessened with the consideration of the other’s response. It is not the fact that, within the teshuva process, one would be demanded to rectify the problems that emerged from the misdeed that is the problem. It is the fact that the other is given weight, that the other’s forgiveness is demanded, that demands contemplation. Why should God’s atonement be dependent upon the whim of this other? Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2;9-11, in a certain way, seems to address this problem or, at least, concern. He discusses, in these halachot, what can be done if the person harmed is now absent or if this person refuses to forgive. The lack of forgiveness from the other is, ultimately, not a complete bar to God’s forgiveness – but nevertheless, why is it still given a significant stature in the process? God forgives because He knows the heart of each person. He knows their true intentions and thoughts. In addition, we recognize that in approaching God, the concern is solely on the individual attempting to do teshuva. In approaching another human being, the personal desires and concerns of this other individual enter the realm of my existence. There are many reasons why this person may not forgive, many not even tied to my being. How can God include this decision by another imperfect human being in His decision to forgive?

             Many years ago, I heard a story of a woman who had a falling out with someone with whom she was close. She decided to write this person a letter basically asking what went wrong and what could be undertaken to change the situation and re-ignite the closeness. She never received a response. A while later she saw the person to whom she wrote the letter and, summoning the courage to pose the question, asked why there was no response to her letter. The reply was that this person simply didn’t talk about such things. The answer of Torah, though, is that one must talk about such things.

             Silence is often thought to be the best path in relating to the other. What silence actually allows is for two independent individuals to co-exist in the same time and space. For two individuals to bond, to form a collective, to relate, what is demanded is communication – not just any communication but the expression of our individuality as we attempt to meet the other’s individuality. This demands confrontation. It demands talking about issues, points of friction. It effectively demands talking about each other to each other – recognizing our individual uniqueness and the differences between each of us.   

             Vayikra 19:17 presents two important mitzvot.1 We are commanded not to hate another in our heart; rather we must inform the other of our feelings. We are also commanded to rebuke another when we believe is acting incorrectly. Effectively, what both of these mitzvot demands of us are to confront the other, to initiate channels of communication2 about matters of significance. In expressing our negative feelings to the other, we give this person the opportunity to explain himself/herself and perhaps identify a weakness that he/she sees in us. In rebuking the other, we give this person the opportunity to explain himself/herself and challenge us for improperly evaluating the situation. We do not live alone. We live in world with others. The prime challenge that we must overcome in learning how to live in this world is to recognize this simple reality.  

             This may explain why attempting to achieve forgiveness from the one harmed is such an important part of the process of teshuva in regard to mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro, At the root of violations of this nature is, often, the fact that we see the world through our eyes, through only our eyes. If we see the other, we immediately apply our vision of ourselves to our vision of the other. If we do not see the other qua other, it is easy to overstep our boundaries and cause pain to the other. To effect change in this perception, it is not enough to solely compensate. It is also not enough to solely attempt to appease and lessen the emotional hurt. The demand to request another’s forgiveness places oneself at the discretion of the vision of the other. We are dependent on the perceptions of the other. It is thereby that we can learn the important lesson necessary in order to accomplish teshuva in the realm of mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro: to see the other. It is this lack that generally leads to such transgressions in the first place. It is this lack that must be addressed in the teshuva process. So we must place ourselves at the whims of the others, in order to ensure that we see and recognize others as others.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1) See, further, Sefer HaChinuch 238, 239.
See, further, Ntziv and Malbim.

(c) Nishma, 2007.

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