Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Forgiveness Should Not Create Fear

During the ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, known as the “Ten days of Teshuvah,” we recite each morning one of the most beautiful and moving chapters of Psalms, ch. 130. It contains a most enigmatic verse, which is repeated many times during the prayers of Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

כִּי עִמְּךָ הַסְּלִיחָה לְמַעַן תִּוָּרֵא.

“But you offer forgiveness, so that we might learn to fear you.”

The logic is counterintuitive. People who offer forgiveness are less feared, not more feared. If I know that you are the “forgiving type,” I fear you less, not more. What does King David mean “But you offer forgiveness, so that we might learn to fear you?”

A Tale of Two Bank Managers

Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the Alter Rebbe, the Baal HaTanya, explained it with a metaphor from the world of economics.[1] The entire metaphor is his; the specific example is mine.

It is 2006. The real estate market is booming. You took a 100 million dollar loan from the bank to renovate a massive complex in Manhattan which you will sell and earn a profit of 50 million. Not bad for a nice Jewish boy who is ADD and a college dropout. Suddenly, the market collapses, you can’t sell your condos, and you are left with a major debt. You meet with the bank manager. He declares: We want the entire debt paid up—the 100 million with all the interest, as per the schedule we agreed upon. On the 15th your first payment of 1.5 million is due.

You go home, and you know in your mind, there is no way you can do this. Even if you were to stand on your head for a month, you simply cannot come up with this money. So what do you do? Mentally, you give up. You ignore the monthly invoices, notices, summons, and warnings. You get your house off your name, you push off the hearings till 2033, and you go for a good massage. You tell your wife, the guy is crazy, and you don’t even think of it anymore. There is nothing better you can do.

But suppose another scenario: The bank manager says, okay, we all got hit badly. We are all in a big mess. We all need to bite the bullet. You were wiped out; we were also wiped out. Let’s work this out fairly and lovingly. How about, we cut the loan by 30 percent? We remove all interest. Let’s make this work for both of us. I need you to work with me. What would be a feasible schedule of payment?

Ah, now you get scared... Now you need to go home and you need to figure it out. Now you need to come up with some money. He is being such a mentch, you can’t betray him. You need to show up with payment.

This, says the Alter Rebbe, is the meaning of the verse, “But you offer forgiveness, so that we might learn to fear you.” If G-d demanded full compensation for all our mistakes, if He demanded that we pay up in full, with interest, then we would not fear Him; we would give up on Him.

It is like the child who can never please their parent. Whatever he does, it is never enough, and every mistake is highlighted. At some point, such children give up completely. “If I have no hope of ever getting it right, why try? If I will always be criticized, why bother?” The child, in a mixture of cynicism, rebellion, pain, and despair, just severs the relationship.

“But you offer forgiveness, so that we might learn to fear you,” King David says. G-d forgives. He never asks us to be perfect, only to be accountable. He asks of us to meet Him half way. He tells each of us on Yom Kippur: I want to make this work for YOU. I want you to live the most meaningful, beautiful, successful, powerful and happy life you can. I yearn for you to help Me make your life the ultimate success story.

Now we really have to go into our hearts and mend our mistakes, fix our wrongs and resolve to live a purer and holier future.

“But you offer forgiveness, so that we might learn to fear you.”

[1] Quoted by his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866) in Tehilim Yahel Or chapter 130. The metaphor is further explained in Maamar Ki Eimcha Haslicha 5709 (1949); Maamar Ani Ledodi 5729 (1969).