On Forgiveness

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

In the first half of this week’s double Torah portion, Chukkat-Balak, the Israelites need to take the long way around the mighty kingdom of Edom. Their suffering extended by the long journey, the Torah explains that they grew, “short of spirit.” (Numbers 21:4).

Frustrated by their circumstances and unable to appreciate the bigger picture, the Israelites speak out against God and Moses. Not one to endure the people’s complaining, God responds by sending fiery serpents to bite the people.

“The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD to take away the serpents from us!’ And Moses interceded for the people.” (Numbers 21:7)

In response, Moses builds a copper serpent which heals the people once they look upon it. The great medieval Torah scholar, Rashi, taught that from Moses’s actions on behalf of the people, “We learn that one who is asked to forgive should not be too cruel to do so.” Even though they spoke against him, Moses did not hold it against them. He did not seek vengeance or take pleasure in their suffering. Rashi teaches us that when someone reaches out and asks for forgiveness, we should strive to be generous and offer it to them.

We all make mistakes and sometimes cause hurt, even when we act with the best of intentions. As Alexander Pope wrote, “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” May we all walk in the ways of God and live up to the idea that we are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, and practice forgiveness whenever the opportunity is offered to us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Schaefer