Sunday, October 05, 2008

Asking for Mechilah

It’s that time of year again—the time when your closest friends awkwardly take you aside and say, “If there’s anything I’ve done this year to hurt you, or…I hope you will be mochel—” and then you cut them off and mutter, “No, no, of course…and I hope that you’ll…” and then they cut you off and then you hug.

Or better yet: your inboxes fill with mass text messages and emails that read, “Have a gmar chasima tova, and if there’s anything I’ve done to hurt you this year, I hope you will be mochel me!”

Right. So about that—I’ve been thinking, and I haven’t really reached any solid conclusions--which is bad considering that Yom Kippur is right around the corner. Maybe you can help me out.

The practice of asking everyone for mechilah is based on the idea (brought by the Rambam and others) that you cannot achieve mechilah from Hashem for aveirot bein adam l’chaveiro unless the person you wronged has forgiven you first. This I understand. However…

How much do these blanket requests for forgiveness really achieve? Is an unspecific appeal or an electronic mass message really all that much better than nothing? The assumption is that the person/people you’re asking are going to say, “Of course!” If that’s the case, do you really have to go through the motions of asking? If you know that the person will forgive you, or has probably already forgiven you, or has forgotten all about any potential wrong you might have done to him/her, do you have to ask?

Also, in a case where the person doesn’t even know that she was wronged—say, for example, that you spoke loshon hara about someone behind her back—is it constructive to approach the person and say, “Hi, I spoke loshon hara about you this year, do you forgive me?” Would it be better to just leave the person in blissful ignorance?

Also, how do these things change if the person is just an acquaintance instead of a close friend? With a close friend you can pretty much assume that she will/has already forgiven you for anything unspecified you might have done to her. But an acquaintance probably hasn’t even though about your existence long enough to contemplate the possibility that you wronged him/her, so what is the proper thing to do? Call the person up and say, “Hi, I’m SJ, you know, from English class? I sit in the third row near the back? Right, so, um, I’m pretty sure I spoke loshon hara about you this year—are you mochel me?” Is that constructive? And, um, how are you supposed to get her phone number in the first place?

All of this makes me feel that perhaps the proper course of action would be to forego all of this meshugas. That would allow you to focus on asking mechilah for specific actions that you know have hurt others, and for which the injured party still bears a grudge of some sort. If you could call someone up and say, “Remember the time I embarrassed you in front of our friends? I’m really, really sorry about that. The action was beneath me, and I feel sincerely awful about it. Will you forgive me?”—that sounds a lot more like a significant, productive conversation that the others I’ve mentioned.

The problem is that limiting requests for mechilah to the situation I’ve just described doesn’t really line up with the Rambam’s idea, because you haven’t been officially forgiven for all of your chataim bein adam l’chaveiro.

Do you see my issue? Do you have any thoughts?

P.S. If there’s anything I’ve done to hurt or wrong you in the past, either with your knowledge or without, I am sincerely sorry, and I humbly request your mechilah.

No, I really really do.


Ezzie said...

Well said, madam...

Scraps said...

Only once did I ask for mechilah and have someone answer, "I have to think about it." It really freaked me many months later, shortly before Rosh Hashana, I called her again to follow up (the original time I asked was not around the Yamim Noraim; I try to beat the holiday rush when I can). That time she forgave me, which lifted a huge weight off my chest. But she commented that I was the only person in so many years to actually follow up on her refusal to grant mechilah; everyone else just laughed it off or forgot about it. After all, how many times have they been refused? Of course they assume that she'll think about it, forgive them, and all will be well.

The whole experience made me think a lot harder about mechilah and how I ask for it and grant it. I think a little harder before saying "yes" to someone who really hurt me. I listen to what they're asking and consider if I am ready to forgive, if I can put the hurt out of my heart. Sometimes it takes me a little longer. And when I know I've hurt someone, when I ask for mechilah, I mean it. I'm not as flippant about it as I used to be. I think it's a change for the better.

G said...

Enter tefillas Zacha...

SJ said...

(a) There is no guarantee that everyone will say Tefillas Zakka, or even if they do, that they have actually internalized the forgiveness that it extends toward everyone. (For those who did say Tefillas Zakka, though, it is true that you'd seemingly no longer have the issue regarding wrongs that they didn't know you did to them.)

(b) If Tefillas Zakka was really enough, why would we bother with any requests for mechila at all?

G said...

I don't understand?

If you want a 100% guarantee then simply request heartfelt forgiveness from one and all while at the same time saying a heartfelt tefillas Zacha.

Nobody said it was a magic balm.

Heck, you could also just be sure to never do anything wrong towards anybody throughout the year...then you wouldn't have to worry about this issue in the first place.

It's an imperfect world with imperfect people who try to do what they can as best they can. Yes, sometimes you cannot correct the wrongs you've done.

SJ said...

Obviously, certain things are impossible and we just have to do our best. I was simply wondering whether these mass requests for mechilah really accomplish anything, and how we are best served before YK--should we be spending our time tracking down every person we've wronged (which might be necessary if you really can't achieve mechila for anything without express forgiveness from that person), or is it ok to assume that those wrongs that have been forgotten or were never known may be left that way? Different people might choose to do different things in this situation, but I think it's a legitimate question.

Josh M. said...

You're right; asya d'magen magen shaveh. I feel the same way about mass tehillim lists. The only benefit to such a ritual, AIUI, is that in one out of a hundred cases it may drive a person to actually think about the true meaning of mechila or tefillah.

As for your next point, I recall hearing (no source, sorry) that R' Yisroel Salanter refused to give Sefer Chofetz Chaim a haskamah because of his disagreement on precisely this point, in that RYS held that one had no right to cause another person pain by revealing his betrayal to him in order to get mechila.

I tend to ask mechila (trying to be as specific as possible) from my housemates and chavrusas and hope that that covers most of my potential offenses.

I don't know who you are, but am mochel you, nonetheless :-)

Ezzie said...

I recall hearing (no source, sorry) that R' Yisroel Salanter refused to give Sefer Chofetz Chaim a haskamah because of his disagreement on precisely this point, in that RYS held that one had no right to cause another person pain by revealing his betrayal to him in order to get mechila.

That's fascinating; think there's any way to dig up this source somehow??

corner point said...

I'm not sure about the source of the haskama story, but it's interesting to note that the following paragraph is added in parenthases to day 46 (asking forgiveness for speaking lashon hara)of Artscroll's Chofetz Chaim Daily Companion:

"The legendary founder of the Mussar Movement, Rab Yisrael Salanter, found difficulty with the above law. From a Mussar perspective, he suggested that if by telling a person that we spoke lashon hara about him, we will cause additional pain and distress, then perhaps it is better not to inform him."


I wonder if this applies to any act of betrayal...

Josh M. said...

I was told that the story I related appears in the 5th volume of Dov Katz's _Tenu'as haMussar_ .

ella said...

When HaShem is deciding what kind of year everyone is going to have, it's preposterous to think that that girl over there is going to have a bad year because I am hurt. Who am I? What does it matter? Obviously I don't want her to be punished. She is my sister and my friend. I love her if only because she is breathing.
I'm not sure that the productivity of this practice is in the asking as much as in the being asked. It is so clear to you that you forgive them and that you wish them nothing but the best. It helps us enter into Rosh Hashanah with the achdus that we desperately need to ensure the success of the coming year. To guarantee that in this stretch of time we will finally greet Moshiach.
Still, I understand what it is to be hurt and I know how very possible it is to find forgiveness a thing too distant. Sometimes it is something that you cannot give. You want to, but at this moment that is asking too much. And so we see how it is that our prayers are sometimes unanswered. As we stand there with unspeakable words resting on our tongues, we know how HaShem can sometimes say no. We've caused too much pain.
But if you can muster every sliver of strength you possess and grant them the thing they request, surely HaShem mimics your actions when He forms your future.

I'm not sure if that helped.

SJ said...

Josh - Thanks for telling me that story; I'd never heard it before. My follow-up question is: would R' Salanter say, then, that by not asking mechila (in order to spare the victim additional pain) the person who betrayed is making a conscious (and morally correct) decision to accept the consequences of his action and simply not receive mechila for the betrayal? Or would he assert that in such a case Hashem would grant mechila even without the forgiveness of the injured party?

Ella - You make a good point about promoting achdus--however, this would argue for one-on-one sincere requests for forgiveness, even if specific sins are left unspecified. A mass email or text seems almost counterproductive to this goal, as its relative flippancy emphasizes the fact that the asker did not take the time to call or speak to the potentially injured party personally.

ella said...

I'm not sure I agree. Everyone is sincere in that moment when the seal is suspended above the decree. In that last minute of the day when you know the hand is moving in only one direction, and it's down.
You are sincere in your insistence that you should not be the cause of her misfortune. Regardless of how she asks, you know that you don't want her to be punished. Therefore the achdus is based in you. It is created and nurtured in who are you.
You are also sincere in your pain. You feel hurt. And how much more so in this moment of personal weakness if you can forgive her. Does that not create an achdus much greater than the one given to those it is easy to forgive?

SJ said...

Ella - if that is so, sending no request for mechila at all would be just as productive as a mass-produced one.