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A Sincere Apology

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Most of us have experienced some form of hurt, slight or loss at the hands of another human being. Sometimes we feel anger. At other times we find it within ourselves to rise above our pain and be accepting and forgiving.

But most of us, unfortunately, have also been on the other side of the fence. We were not the victims, but the perpetrators of some form of abuse. When we realized, with a sense of guilt, that we actually inflicted harm on someone else, which emotions did we experience then? Perhaps we felt shame, at first, but all too often, that shame slowly subsides into a feeling of complacency. The world goes on, our life returns to normal, and our friend is left to nurse the wound and wallow in resentment. Which one of us has some growing up to do?

“If a person will sin and commit a trespass against G-d and be deceitful toward his friend regarding a pledge or a loan or about robbery; or he deprived his comrade; or he found a lost item and denied it–and he swore falsely about any of all the things…. He shall repay by its capital and its fifth [1]; he shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he admits his guilt.”[2]

On the words “to whom it belongs,” Rashi [3] comments:

“To the one to whom the money belongs.”

Seemingly, Rashi’s interpretation is obvious and redundant. To whom would you assume that the money should be returned, if not to the original owner? This is precisely the question on the verse that Rashi wishes to address. Why does the verse find it necessary to add the words “to whom it belongs”?

It is possible to argue that the additional fifth is a fine imposed on the thief as a punishment for his violation, and therefore, by rights, need not be paid to the victim. The thief may well be obligated to pay it to the court, or perhaps donate it to charity. To emphasize that it must indeed be paid to the target of the theft, the verse stresses, “to whom it belongs.”

This seemingly simple verse addresses a deeper underlying theme in human relationships. There is a concept in Jewish mystical thought that when one suffers a loss or damage at the hands of another human being, he should not feel anger towards that person, since the loss was decreed upon him from Above. Even had the aggressor chosen not to do harm to him, G-d could have sent the negative experience his way through other means.[4]

According to this line of thinking, a thief can absolve himself of the duty to make amends to the victim of the theft. He could easily argue that the theft is only an issue between him and G-d. His argument may run as follows: “I have full faith in G-d’s justice; my issue is between me and G-d alone. My fellow’s loss does not particularly tug at my heartstrings, for after all, G-d has decreed it upon him. I am indeed concerned for the breach of my trust relationship with G-d. I have violated His command, and have taken His name in vain. I will therefore take upon myself penance and supplications to restore our relationship. I will dutifully fulfill the biblical obligation incumbent upon me to restore the loss, and even tack on the penalty. But the wrong inflicted upon my fellow is hardly my concern. I feel no duty to go to particularly great lengths to restore my shattered trust with him; he is a nonentity to me.”

Such a skewed view of interpersonal relationships reflects on a lack in the human-Divine relationship as well. Were we to fulfill our interpersonal relationships merely to please G-d, this would indicate a basic self-centeredness. We want to feel right and justified. We are uncomfortable with the unsettling feeling of being in the wrong, and therefore we feel compelled to make amends. Our acceptance of the Divine commandment to appease our fellow stems essentially from our own need for personal vindication.

Yet a true relationship with G-d entails being thoroughly permeated with Divine compassion and sensitivity. We are careful with other people’s feelings not so much for the sake of fulfilling our own obligations, but out of a sincere interest in the needs of the other person. Upon discovering or regretting the wrong I have committed against my friend, my sole concern is to ease his pain and lighten his burden. My personal obligation and blight vis-à-vis G-d is secondary. What is primary to me is that my friend’s loss, and peace of mind, be restored. I want not only to return the theft, but even add on an extra amount to make up for the emotional distress I caused, and any possible profit that he may have lost out on during the time that his money was in my possession.

The commandments regulating interpersonal relationships, such as those concerning slander, honesty in business dealings, or charitable obligations, fall in the category of “mishpatim,” or laws which have a logical basis. Although they are in concordance with human understanding, we are nevertheless obliged to fulfill them out of a sense of kabbalat ol, (acceptance of Divine authority). G-d is aware of the all-too-human tendency to rationalize and justify our transgressions. The Torah therefore institutes a code of conduct that is not subject to the rules of human rationality, to prevent a person from absolving himself of blame when that should suit his agenda. Yet it is far from G-d’s intention that we fulfill our obligations towards our fellow man out of a sense of duty towards G-d, and forget the human dimension. The ultimate expression of kabbalat ol is when it takes root in all levels of the personality.

A G-dly person refrains from gossip and evil speech, is scrupulous in his business dealings, and avoids to the utmost taking any property that does not belong to him. But what is his motivation? Does he really care that much for the feelings and needs of his fellow human beings, or is he trying to score points in heaven? The intent of the mishpatim is to mold the human character, and to guide a person to become more humane, more sensitive and more loving. We subject ourselves to the Divine will so that we can transcend our own selfish nature, and thereby become truly G-dly and loving individuals.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Shabbos Parshas Vayikra, vol. 7, pp. 9-19

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Chaya Shuchat.


[1] Meaning, that the thief is obligated to repay the amount that he stole, plus one fifth of the total added on as a penalty. This refers to a case where the thief regretted his action and admitted it in a court of law.

[2] Vayikra 5:21-24.

[3] Rashi’s commentary on Vayikra 5:24.

[4] Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, ch. 25.

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One Response to “A Sincere Apology”

  1. “As I am holy, so too shall you be holy.” We must really love the Other, wanting the best for them – remembering that Hashem loves us, and we must emulate His generous and infinite tenderness.

    A patient in psychotherapy recently said to me that she had finally understood what real love is, after having experienced many self-serving forms of so-called ‘love’ from others. She said we know it is love when it causes healing.

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