Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution

In keeping with recent research-based insights about the multiple benefits of incorporating religious values in our lives, a number of up-to-date studies have documented the benefits of granting forgiveness. These studies have found that individuals who hold on to anger at others — friends, family, and associates — and repeatedly mull over perceived slights at the hands of others are at greater risk for depression, health difficulties, and even premature death.[1] In addition to the biblically derived prohibition against bearing grudges, when an individual’s thinking and emotional life includes sustaining feelings of resentment or a repetitive reliving of hurtful experiences, they are liable to feel a loss of control over their lives.

Such individuals are more likely to have higher pulse rates and blood pressure than individuals who are able to let go of their anger.

Jewish Perspectives


Perhaps the greatest difference between the Jewish perspective of forgiveness and the attitude that dominates much of the Western world is whether there is an obligation to forgive. In contrast to the view that encourages “turning the other cheek” (i.e., granting forgiveness even when the offending party makes no efforts to seek exoneration), Jewish law is clear on the obligation of the offending party to actively seek forgiveness.

The Talmud states:

Even though the offender pays him compensation, the offense is not forgiven until he asks him for forgiveness.[2]

Rambam (Maimonides) expounds on this obligation:

Repentance and Yom Kippur only grant forgiveness for sins that occur between man and God, such as one who eats prohibited food or engages in promiscuous activity. However, sins that take place between one man and another, such as one who assaults, curses, or steals from his friend, are not forgiven until he pays his friend what he owes and also appeases him. Even if he pays the money that is owed for the damages he causes, he still is obligated to appease him and seek his forgiveness. This holds true even if the damages were only caused by words; he still must appease his friend and entreat him until forgiven. If his friend does not want to grant forgiveness, he should bring a group of three of his friends and entreat him and ask for forgiveness in their presence. If that doesn’t work, the process should be repeated a second and third time. At that point, if forgiveness is not granted it is the offended party who is considered the sinner.[3]

The language of the Sages, as summarized by the Rambam, in discussing the obligation of the offender regarding the process of seeking forgiveness is instructive. The two words that are used in describing this process are “ritzui” and “piyus.” The word “piyus,” appeasement, relates to the emotional realm. Placating and soothing the wronged party’s hurt feelings is an essential component of the process of seeking forgiveness. On the other hand, ritzui describes appeasement, pardon in the cognitive realm as opposed to the emotional one. It is an attempt to change the victim’s attitude by altering his perspective. If an apology is sincere, the process of ritzui should lead to reconsideration by the wronged party of the way he views the event. Our Sages therefore describe a process of reconciliation that paves the way to both a cognitive as well as an affective process of forgiveness.

The Rambam explains the obligation to forgive in a more detailed manner:

The harmed party is not allowed to be cruel and deny forgiveness. This is not the way of the people of Israel. Rather, once the offender pleads for forgiveness several times, and it is known that he has repented regarding his sin and reconsidered his evil ways, forgiveness should be granted. Anybody who is quick to forgive is praiseworthy, and our Sages are pleased with such behavior.[4]

The responsibility to forgive when the offending party makes sincere efforts to request forgiveness is related to the Torah’s mandate not to harbor ongoing resentment toward others. The Torah commands us not to hate others in our heart, nor is one allowed to take revenge or bear a grudge:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. . . . You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, (but) you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Hashem.[5]

Rashi explains the difference between revenge and harboring a grudge by giving the example of someone who refuses to lend his sickle to his neighbor. The next day, the person who refused his neighbor the sickle asks to borrow his neighbor’s ax. Refusal to lend the ax because of harboring resentment at his neighbor’s refusal to lend his possession is a violation of the Torah commandment against taking revenge. Lending the ax, accompanied by the comment, “I am not like you who refused to lend me your sickle,” is a violation of the commandment not to harbor a grudge.

The Sefer HaChinuch points out that this prohibition against bearing a grudge refers to an emotional process of feeling resentment in one’s heart, even when not accompanied by expressing these feelings in words or action.


Valuable insights into the psychological process involved in granting forgiveness are hinted at in the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word for forgiveness: mechilah. The word can be viewed as related to machol, or circle/dance, and it also can be related to the Hebrew word for tunnel.


While according to the strict rules of Hebrew grammar the word machol, circle, is not linked to the word mechilah, Rabbi David Kimchi, the Radak, makes this association on the following passage:

You have changed for me my lament into dancing… and girded me with happiness.[6]

While the Metzudos and Targum on this passage translate machol as related to the circle of dancing, the Radak ties the word to mechilah, forgiveness:

I was mourning over the specter of my soul perishing because of my sins, but you gladdened me by the prophet Nathan with good tidings: “Hashem has also forgiven your sin, you shall not die” (II Samuel 12:13). Accordingly, our verse should be rendered: “You have changed my lament to forgiveness.”[7]

What is the connection between machol, a circle formed in dance, and the word mechilah, forgiveness? When one remains angry at a member of their family or community, they are taking themselves out of the circle of belonging and continuity. They experience the sadness of not feeling fully connected to their circle of family and friends. A circle symbolizes belonging, connection, and equality. In the Talmud, our Rabbis tell us[8] that in the World to Come the righteous will form a circle and dance around God, Who will be in the center of the circle. Unlike a line where there is an inherent lack of equality — defined by a beginning, an end, and points in between — in a machol everybody is equidistant from their peers while dancing, forming a circle that has focus and surrounds a common purpose and central point.

We see this phenomenon as well on the holiday of Succos when during the Hoshana service we surround the Torah that is carried in the center of the circle, and similarly at a wedding where we dance around the chassan or kallah. In both cases, the circle symbolizes two powerful forces associated with belonging and happiness: equality and connection to meaning and sublime purpose.

When we grant others mechilah we join them in a “dance” of reconnection and reconciliation. Arguments can never be resolved when the wronged party remains stuck in an alienated morass of anger and accusation. Conflict resolution is not about the straight line of certainty and unilateral blame. In fact, the offended party almost always makes some contribution to the conflict. When one’s mindset shifts from blame to relative contribution, the process of healing and reconnection follows.[9] When one stops standing in the lonely, disconnected space outside of the circle and joins in the dance of reciprocity, all of the positive benefits of uniting with others will inevitably follow. When forgiveness is granted, when we rejoin the circle in a manner that lets go of ill feelings, we experience the happiness and sense of meaning that inevitably accompanies healing reconciliation and reconnection.

Insights from the Baalei Mussar

Humility is a character trait which is a prerequisite for the process of asking for forgiveness. The Rambam teaches us:

There are traits regarding which it is prohibited to strike a middle path. Rather one should avoid these traits to the extreme. One of these traits is haughtiness. It is not enough to be humble; rather one should be extremely humble. That is why it is written regarding Moshe, our teacher, “he was extremely humble,” not just “humble.” Therefore, our Rabbis taught us “be extremely humble,” and they also taught us that anybody who is conceited is denying an essential aspect of our faith.

This is also the case with anger, which is a terrible trait. It is fitting that a person should avoid this trait to the extreme and teach himself not to become angry — even for a worthy reason. If he wants to instill fear in his children and household members, he should feign anger, but internally be calm.[10]

When the Torah speaks of the second plague in Egypt, the plague of frogs, the verse uses the singular:

And the frog came up [from the Nile].[11]

Certainly there was a multitude of frogs, not just a single one! The Talmud in Sanhedrin interprets this event as follows:

Rabbi Akiva says that there was one frog, but [the Egyptians] kept hitting it in anger. Consequently, hundreds more came forth that they also hit, thereby producing thousands more.[12]

A great Mussar master used this midrashic interpretation as an example of the negative power of the emotion of anger. When the first frog appeared and an Egyptian annoyed by its croaking hit it with a stick, he saw that this merely brought forth many more frogs. Then, as the others appeared, he continued to smite them which in turn caused many more frogs to come forth. So why does he continue to hit them? Doesn’t he know full well that this will exacerbate rather than solve the problem? The answer obviously is that this was done in anger, and when a person is overtaken or possessed by anger logic and reason disappears. This insight helps us more fully appreciate why the Rambam lists anger as the gravest of all negative traits.

Why is it that in addition to anger our Rabbis teach us that pride should also be completely uprooted? From a psychological standpoint, injured pride is often the underlying reason behind losing one’s temper. Think back to the last time you felt yourself becoming angry. A careful analysis often will indicate that the trigger was a thought process, reflecting a feeling, of “how dare this person do this to me?” This is why the corrective process of both asking for mechilah and granting mechilah requires a conscious effort to abandon our pride and experience the humility of admitting wrongdoing.

The essence of forgiveness is humility, the ability to let go of your ego enough to allow another perspective to enter. This connection between making peace with those who anger us and the conquering of pride is beautifully illustrated by the following insight. We are taught in Proverbs:[13]

As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.

The emotion one feels in interacting with others is often a reciprocal process, where the moods of the person with whom we are connecting bounce off us, much like our face’s reflection when mirrored back by water. As the Metzudas Dovid on this passage explains, if negative emotions such as sadness are being experienced by one’s friend then we tend to “pick up” on this sadness as the feelings in our hearts bounce off each other. Consequently, we feel sad together with our friend. Similarly, happy feelings are contagious as well. In fact, in a well-documented set of studies by psychologists it has been found that “forcing” oneself to smile can lead to happier feelings and that, in fact, smiling is a contagious behavior that spreads to those with whom we interact.[14]

In the case of anger, when our friend is angry at us we tend to reflect back anger to him as well. The baalei Mussar learn an important lesson from this. They point out that when one’s face is reflected back by water, it is blurred and out of focus. How do we ensure that we see an accurate reflection of our face when peering into a body of water? We need to bend down. It is only when we “lower ourselves” and humbly bend down that we are able to see our reflection without distortion. Clearly, in interpersonal relationships it is only when one bends down and humbly tries to understand what is in the other’s heart that anger can give way to empathy and forgiveness. Humility is even more necessary on the part of the offending party. As noted earlier, the process of seeking forgiveness requires repeatedly approaching the offended party; if he is unforgiving, the one seeking to appease the harmed party should involve others to intercede on his behalf.[15]

Yosef and His Brothers:
Insights into the Psychology of Forgiveness

The Torah’s description of the story of Yosef and his brothers provides numerous rich insights into the process of forgiveness. Returning to the image of forgiveness as a process of mutually digging a machol, a tunnel, the narrative of the brothers’ contrition and repentance and the parallel process of Yosef’s empathic response has much to teach us regarding how to let go of resentment in our daily life.

The brothers admitted to being guilty in a manner that must have seemed particularly credible to Yosef, since they didn’t know that he was listening to them as they spoke of their wrongdoing. As Yosef listens in on his brothers, who don’t know that he understands their language, they say:

They then said to one another, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed — that is why this anguish has come upon us.”[16]

Obviously, this admission of guilt has a particularly strong impact in that its genuineness is self-evident, since the brothers don’t know that Yosef is overhearing their admission. On his part, Yosef’s part of the “tunneling” process is to respond with tears:

He turned away from them and wept.[17]

The implications of this empathic response will be discussed below.

Later in the Torah’s narrative about the brothers’ teshuvah (repentance) process there is evidence of what the Rambam calls teshuvah gemurah, total repentance. The Rambam tells us that evidence of such contrition is most clearly demonstrated when an individual is faced with a situation that is as similar as possible to the circumstances that presented when the original wrongdoing took place. We have just such a circumstance when Yehudah is faced with the possibility that, once again, a son of Rachel is going to be unfairly sold into slavery. Yehudah rises to the occasion and demonstrates an act of total repentance when he, a son of Leah, offers to go into slavery to save a son of Rachel:

“Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the youth as a servant to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers.”[18]

Once again Yosef responds with tears and words of comfort:

Now Joseph could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him, so he called out, “Remove everybody from before me!” Thus nobody remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. He cried in a loud voice. Egypt heard and Pharaoh’s household heard.[19]

“And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you.[20]

In the next stage of the mutual tunneling process, the brothers, following their father’s death, confess their wrongdoing directly to Yosef (albeit in an indirect way by saying these words in the name of their father). Once again, Yosef’s response is tears:

So they instructed that Joseph be told, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil. . . .”’ And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.[21]

What was Yosef’s role in promoting the forgiveness process and what insights does the Torah give us into which elements in Yosef’s personality and behavior promoted such generosity of spirit? A deeper understanding, perhaps, can be gained by looking at an important ingredient in the psychology literature as to what promotes the process of forgiveness. A key ingredient that is discussed in virtually all of the literature on how to facilitate the process of forgiving others is the ability to focus on the positive and let go of angry ruminations about the negative.[22] Yosef clearly demonstrated the ability to view life through a positive and optimistic prism even in the most trying circumstances. This is clearly indicated throughout the three interchanges with his brothers (discussed above). Woven throughout those passages is Yosef’s consistent reframing of what happened as being for the good. After he reveals his true identity to his brothers he tries to comfort them by saying, “for it was to be a provider that God sent me”[23] — I was sent by God to save the family. Again this ability to let go of the negative and focus on the positive is seen when Yosef comforts his brothers after their father’s death by saying:

“Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish — it is as clear as this day — that a vast people be kept alive.[24]

Moreover, this ability to focus on the positive and relinquish the negative is also reflected in the naming of Yosef’s two sons Menasheh and Ephraim:

Joseph called the name of his firstborn Menasheh for, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.” And the name of the second son he called Ephraim for, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.[25]

When Joseph names his oldest son Menasheh, he seems to still be struggling with the need to forget the pain of the past. The name Menasheh is derived from the Hebrew word for “forgetting.” As the passage regarding the birth of Menasheh explains, his name was given because God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household. In naming Ephraim, however, we see clear evidence of Yosef’s optimism. Ephraim is based on the Hebrew word for “fruitful” — For God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering. There is a slow, but definite, change in Yosef’s attitude toward his lot.

Joseph’s optimism is perhaps most directly seen as having a crucial role in promoting the process of forgiveness when we examine a midrash that describes an incident that took place after Yaakov’s death. Yosef and his brothers are traveling back to Egypt and one can only imagine their terror when he takes a detour to visit the pit into which they had cast him. Imagine, one of the most powerful men in the world, no longer constrained by concern over the reactions of his father, takes them to the very site of their sinful efforts to rid themselves of him! This part of their journey arouses their worst fears. Their concern is clearly mirrored in the verse:

And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Joseph will perhaps hate us, and then will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.[26]

The midrash describes what happened next:

Joseph’s brothers saw that their father died — and what did they see now that they were so frightened? When they returned from the burial of their father they saw that Yosef went to the pit that they threw him into and Yosef made the blessing that one is required to make after he experiences a miracle: “Thank God for performing a miracle for me in this place.”[27]

The brothers failed to appreciate Yosef’s true feelings and emotions at this critical juncture in his journey of thanksgiving to God and forgiveness of his brothers.

This is the essence of what is psychologically asked of a person who is faced with the challenge of forgiving somebody who has wronged him. One has a choice at such a moment: one can remain mired in self-pity, anger, negativity, and a burning desire for revenge, or one can transcend this natural instinct and filter events in a manner that focuses on whatever positive lessons emerged from the ordeal and gratitude for his survival. Yosef, who is called a tzaddik, a righteous one, chooses the latter path.

Another key ingredient described in the literature on forgiveness is the ability to empathically identify with the individuals who committed the offense. The ability to engage in such counterintuitive behavior helps the victim experience changes in his feelings toward the offender. Eventually this can enable him to release the burden of holding on to his resentment as well.[28]

As noted earlier, on the three occasions where Yosef is confronted with his brothers’ repentance he responds with tears of empathy. Why did the brothers remain dry-eyed? The Yalkut Yehudah, Rav Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, says the brothers were beyond tears. They couldn’t cry because their hearts were too filled with sadness, guilt, and bitterness. Yosef’s crying, in contrast, was another sign of his empathy, optimism, and continued tunneling toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

Psychology research on empathic crying explains that this type of crying is a sign that the empathic person is putting himself into his victim’s shoes and identifies with their sense of helplessness. It is of note that psychology research on crying comments that it is not at all uncommon to find situations where the suffering individual for whom the empathic person is weeping often does not manifest tears or other visible signs of pain himself. [29]

As the Yalkut Yehudah says:

Only Yosef and Binyamin cried and not the brothers. This is because when the heart is filled with sadness and pain, one is beyond tears. The brothers were mired in tremendous suffering and pangs of guilt over what they had done to Yosef. Only Yosef and Binyamin, who were free of such pain, were free to cry.[30]

The Yalkut Yehudah goes on to explain that this insight clarifies the meaning of a midrash in Bereishis Rabbah that comments on Yosef’s tears:

“And he cried in a loud voice” — Yosef only appeased his brothers through crying. Similarly, Hashem only redeems Israel through crying, as it says: “With weeping they will come and with supplications I will bring them.”[31]

Yosef’s crying, the midrash tells us, is the type of crying that will precede the ultimate redemption of Klal Yisrael, because it is only tears that come without the burden of guilt and wrongdoing that can result in our ultimate redemption. At the time of geulah, redemption, which is preceded by teshuvah, repentance, there will have been a process of cleansing and expiation of sin. Here there are tears of emotional release and relief.

The lesson of Yosef and his brothers reflects a deep wisdom that can serve as a practical guide to the forgiveness process. When what is mirrored back to the offended party is a genuine assumption of responsibility for wrongdoing and a willingness to take constructive action to remedy the wrong, the road is paved for reconciliation. In a parallel process, if what is mirrored back by the victim is empathy and receptivity to the offender’s remorse then the tunneling parties can meet in the middle and both can enjoy the benefits of reconnection.

Psychological Perspectives

A helpful psychological concept in understanding why it is often so difficult to forgive others is what psychologists call “Fundamental attribution error.”[32] Research has found that human nature is such that when an individual makes a mistake or causes their friend distress they tend to be kind to themselves. They attribute their own wrongdoing to “forgivable” external causes, such as fatigue, an innocent misunderstanding, or some other outside force that absolves one’s self of guilt or feelings of responsibility for wronging others. Conversely, the default setting when faced with a situation where one is hurt or let down by another is to attribute it to an internal flaw in that individual, i.e., some character flaw such as selfishness, laziness, carelessness — or even deliberate insensitivity. This natural tendency to let ourselves off the hook and explain away our own flaws while dealing with others in a far more harsh manner can fuel anger, conflict, and difficulty with forgiving others.

An important perspective on achieving a mindset that can facilitate overcoming the attribution error is shared by the baalei Mussar. Regarding the imperative in the Torah to love our friends as much as ourselves, they point out that the deeper meaning of this passage is to treat others with the same sharpness and same sweetness that we treat ourselves. While at times we can be our own worst critics, attribution error can also generate a tendency to treat ourselves with more sweetness and understanding than we often grant those who anger us. In keeping with the central imperative of the Torah to love others as much as ourselves, we need to relate to others with the same empathy and understanding that inform judgments of our own actions. The Yiddish expression captures this insight succinctly. It says that one should chastise another as he chastises himself: mit de zelbe sharfkeit un der zelbe ziskeit — “with the same sharpness and the same sweetness.” This may account for the Torah placing the command to love your fellowman as yourself in the same verse that contains the prohibition to bear a grudge and take revenge. For it is understandable that one would not bear a grudge or take revenge against, or from, himself.

Recommendations for fostering forgiveness

Dr. Janice Abrahms Spring, a therapist who specializes in the psychology of forgiveness, describes the pitfalls of what she terms “cheap forgiveness” — which is dealing with situations where one was seriously wronged by burying one’s upset and granting forgiveness with no processing of the underlying feelings.[33] In such situations nothing is required of the individual who caused the hurt; forgiveness is granted with nothing being asked in return by the hurt party. Arriving at reconciliation without the mutual tunneling, described earlier, can lead to silent resentment, buried anger, and a feeling of powerlessness. Such anger and resentment can take an emotional toll on the person granting the unearned pardon. Moreover, it can lead to a permanent rupture in the mutuality required of healthy relationships.

Just as dangerous is the individual who refuses to forgive. Such a person, as described by Spring, repeatedly refuses to be receptive to even the most genuine apologies of the person who offended him. Referred to by psychologists as “injustice collectors,” these perpetual victims seem to go through life in a state of anger because they are so sensitive and rejecting of even the most heartfelt efforts at reconciliation. Apologies are never enough and they often seem to embrace the role of the victimized, wronged party. Their inability to see the perspective of others can doom such individuals to cut themselves off from close relationships with many family members and potential friends.

The following recommendations describe strategies that can hopefully avoid the pitfalls of either “cheap forgiveness” on one end of the spectrum, or “injustice collecting” on the other. The process of healthy forgiveness is facilitated by implementing strategies for effective anger management, as well as developing a mindset that promotes empathy and perspective taking. Specific recommendations for engaging in this difficult process are discussed below.


STRIKE WHEN THE IRON IS COLD: PLANNED DISCUSSIONS— When upset with another person, a major impediment to forgiveness is a defensive belief fueled either by thoughts that there must be something “wrong” with the offending party, or perhaps even more upsetting, something wrong with me. When either belief dominates conversation, it is unlikely that an atmosphere conducive to the hard work of forgiveness will dominate. The first step in promoting an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation is to pull back from an immediate reaction fueled by primitive rage; in essence, to strike when the iron is cold. In other words, it is never advisable to react in the heat of anger or upset. Waiting until calm prevails will insure a more positive outcome.

FROM THE “NOSE” TO THE “HEAD” — When one indulges in an immediate, animalistic response to provocative situations the neural circuitry involved in the response is the “short loop”: a response system controlled by the more primitive part of the brain (brainstem, midbrain) which we have in common with animals. Interestingly, this part of the brain, which is roughly situated in the portion of the brain located behind the nose, is reflected in the Hebrew word “af,” defined as both “nose” and “anger.” It is of note that when experiencing intense anger, one starts to breathe hard and his nostrils begin to flare. One solution to this primitive reaction is to counterbalance this process by breathing slowly through the nose — an action that can bring a sense of calm. This allows for utilization of the “long loop,” the longer neural circuitry that lets the frontal cortex take over. This is the part of the brain that makes us “human.” It regulates the right balance between arousal and calmness, and enables a mindset that takes into account figuring out the situation and deciding how to proceed in a more mindful manner. Interestingly, the part of the brain involved in this process is located on the part of the head where men place the shel rosh, the tefillin of the head, every weekday morning, perhaps symbolizing the central importance that calm thinking and perspective taking has in our religion.

THE DYNAMICS OF THE PLANNED DISCUSSION — The first step in arranging this type of healing discussion is to schedule a time and place to discuss the issues in a setting free of distractions. It is essential that such discussions take place in an atmosphere marked by receptivity, calmness, and absence of outside diversions. Both parties need to be guided by the maxim: “to be understood, first understand.” The necessity is to validate feelings and to make sure that each side is heard by the other. A helpful technique for implementing this is the “speaker-listener” technique, an approach often used by marital therapists to facilitate communication between husband and wife[34]

The essence of the technique is that both sides take turns in the role of speaker and listener. When the speaker has the floor, his or her guidelines are to keep to the topic, speak in short statements that consist of just one or two sentences at a time, and to stop to allow the listener to paraphrase. The listener is not to use this time for rebuttal but solely to paraphrase what the speaker has said. The listener will have his turn to present his side at the next planned discussion. At this time there is only one speaker and one listener. This insures that the listener is truly listening and not framing his rebuttal. Additionally, the speaker is asked to not go into a problem-solving mode, and to use “I” statements without lapsing into a language of blame. The speaker is asked not to pass the floor to the listener until he feels that he has had enough time to explain his feelings and concerns on the topic at hand.

The role of the listener is to paraphrase what he hears in his own words, without parroting the speaker. The listener can ask the speaker for examples or explanations of what the speaker said. Additionally, he can feel free to validate the feelings of the speaker as part of this process. The listener is asked not to rebut or offer his own opinions or perspectives, since he will soon have his turn as the speaker.


CURIOSITY — A mindset marked by replacing anger and feelings of hurt with a sense of curiosity about what might have led the other person to act in a way that was hurtful can often help promote an atmosphere of forgiveness. Experts on conflict resolution at the Harvard Business School suggest asking the following set of questions as part of moving from a sense of certainty about the malevolent intentions of others to an emotional space occupied by a more emotionally removed stance that accompanies curiosity.[35] The series of questions they suggest that one ask as part of this process are:

  1. Instead of asking, “How can they think that?” ask, “What information do they have that I don’t?”
  2. Get curious about what you don’t know about your own motivations; what rules underlie your reaction? Is it possible that others don’t share your history and your set of assumptions about what rules and expectations should govern behavior?

RELATIVE CONTRIBUTION — In keeping with the imagery of shifting from a finger-pointing line to the circle of reconciliation, it is helpful to keep in mind that people rarely change if they feel that they are being blamed or are being asked to assume the entire responsibility for a wrongdoing. There is a simple but powerful image that demonstrates the need to look at one’s own role in developing the mindset necessary to forgive. In the actual act of pointing one finger of accusation and blame at others, there are three fingers of blame pointing back to oneself. As a wit once put it, “A clear conscience is sometimes simply a sign of a bad memory.”

An atmosphere that promotes forgiveness is one that explores relative contribution rather than blame. One can promote an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation if one courageously takes responsibility for one’s own contribution to the problem. Once the other party is able to feel that his perspectives are heard, the atmosphere is more likely to be beneficial to his hearing about what upset you about his behavior and what you would like him to do differently in the future.


A potentially helpful perspective in transforming one’s mindset in difficult situations is one mentioned in Jewish writings regarding how to view such challenging circumstances in a totally novel manner.

Our Rabbis taught us to distance ourselves from anger to the point that anger is completely uprooted from one’s heart. This is the good path and the path of the righteous. As we are told,[36] “It is better to be among the insulted and not among those who insult, to be among those who hear insults but do not respond.”[37]

Expanding on the concept that it is better to be among the insulted than those who insult others, the Chofetz Chaim points out[38] that every year God decides how many difficulties a person is going to endure. In some cases, these trials and tribulations can come in the form of financial hardship, for others in the guise of physical illness, and for some in the form of bereavement. If we are fortunate enough to have some of these Divine judgments visited upon us in the form of being insulted or aggravated by others, we should dance with joy! It could have been so much worse! This turns the psychological meaning of feeling that we are being treated unfairly on its head. When a person is “fortunate” enough to have his suffering come in a form that is relatively benign, such as perceived unfair treatment at the hands of others, he should embrace these situations with thanksgiving. All of us should recognize that it is far better that God choose to test us in a benign manner rather than through far more serious trials and tribulations that could come our way.

A prominent rabbi tells the story of getting a phone call from one of his congregants just before he sat down to eat dinner with his family. The congregant immediately went into a harangue viciously attacking the rabbi for some imagined slight that the rabbi knew was totally baseless. After recovering from his initial shock, the insight of the Chofetz Chaim about how to view such situations came to mind. Much to the confusion of his family members, who heard the angry shouting issuing from the other side of the phone, the rabbi held the phone away from his head and began dancing. The following erev Yom Kippur, the rabbi received a phone call from the angry congregant apologizing profusely for his behavior. The congregant explained that he had been upset about something done by a lay member of the congregation and inappropriately targeted the rabbi to vent his frustration.

Reframing the meaning of difficult situations in this way is also described by Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz in the Tiferes Yisrael commentary on the mishnah that begins the fourth chapter of Avos:

Ben Zoma said: Who is he that is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding.”[39]

The Tiferes Yisrael explains:

Most of all, the intelligent person should pay careful heed to the words of his enemy when he degrades and denigrates him and raises his voice. Then should he cup his ears to listen carefully with a tranquil spirit to each insult, great or small . . . these are the teachers one can trust.

Rabbi Lipschutz explains that there are unique growth inducing properties contained in the words of our enemies and critics. Our friends, he explains, often try to protect us by sheltering us from the harsh truth about the flaws in our character and behavior. However, the words of our enemies often contain insights regarding the areas that we need to work on and improve.

Another example of how perceptions can shape emotional response in a positive way is that given by the 19th-century chassidic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe. In a famous Midrash, Moshe Rabbeinu is concerned about finding a successor. Talking to God about the challenge of accommodating different perspectives he says, “Just like their faces aren’t alike, so too, their perspectives differ — each has his own unique perspective.” The Kotzker asks: Why in discussing the need to be respectful of different opinions is the analogy of different faces used? He answered by explaining: Would one ever dream of saying I don’t like this person because he doesn’t look like I do — he has a totally different appearance, his face looks completely different than mine? Of course not! Just like it is easy to accept the reality without becoming upset that individuals look totally different from one another, we also should emotionally accept situations where others don’t think like we do. Additionally, it has been pointed out that just as one readily acknowledges the reality that every person has a face that stamps him with a unique appearance, so too, we must recognize the reality that each person has an opinion that has some merit and can not be treated as though it is non-existent. To deny the validity of another’s opinion is comparable to denying their physical identity.


As noted earlier, one is not allowed to deny forgiveness when the offending party does his part in appropriately seeking forgiveness. The Torah also forbids carrying grudges or harboring hatred in one’s heart. An obvious question is what if the feelings one has toward the offender are so overpowering that it is difficult to grant forgiveness? Psychologists have developed psychotherapy programs to address situations where the ability to forgive is so difficult that help is needed to facilitate the process of letting go of anger and resentment.[40]

The first step in the process of achieving a mindset that facilitates forgiveness is to validate and acknowledge the feelings of shame, anger, and sadness that are connected to the situation. Paradoxically, acknowledging and experiencing strong feelings allows individuals to become less affected by such powerful emotions. Research has found that either talking about, or writing about, traumatic events can help in the process of relating to these events in a manner that can liberate individuals from the burden of anger and resentment.[41]

To truly forgive in such situations, victims must be able to see the offender through a prism of empathy and understanding as to what extenuating factors might have contributed to the offense. Understanding the context of the situation and the thoughts and feelings that might have allowed the hurtful situation to take place can facilitate the process of putting feelings of hurt and anger aside.

Another strategy that can ease the process of forgiveness is deliberately remembering situations where you might have wronged others. This exercise can help reduce the attribution error discussed earlier: “When I make a mistake it is because of understandable reasons outside of me; when you make a mistake it is because there is something wrong with your essence.” Recognizing one’s own imperfections and finding common ground with the person who wronged you can also help this process by triggering memories and feelings of times when you might have sought and were granted forgiveness.


Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz and Dr. David Pelcovitz. Life in the Balance: Torah Perspectives on Positive Psychology, 1st ed., ch. 6. Brooklyn, NY: Shaar Press, 2014


[1] VanOyen Witvliet (2001), Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 2, 117-123.

[2] Bava Kamma 92a.

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:9.

[4] Rambam, Hilchos Chovel U’Mazik 5:10.

[5] Leviticus 19:17-18.

[6] Psalms 30:12.

[7] Radak, cited by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer (1985), Tehillim, Volume I (p.364). Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah.

[8] Taanis 31a.

[9] Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin.

[10] Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 2:3.

[11] Exodus 8:2.

[12] Sanhedrin 67b.

[13] Proverbs 27:19.

[14] Jorgensen, D. (1978). Nonverbal assessment of attitudinal affect with the smile-return technique. Journal of Social Psychology, 106, 173-179.

[15] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:9.

[16] Genesis 42:21.

[17] Ibid. 42:24.

[18] Ibid. 44:33.

[19] Ibid. 45:1-2.

[20] Ibid. 45:5.

[21] Ibid. 50:16-17.

[22] Brose, L., Rye M., Lutz-Zois, C. & Ross, R. (2005). Forgiveness and personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 35–46.

[23] Genesis 45:5.

[24] Ibid. 50:20.

[25] Ibid. 41:51-52.

[26] Ibid. 50:15.

[27] Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 17.

[28] Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[29] Miceli, M. & Cristiano, C. Crying: Discussing its basic reasons and uses. Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Tchnologies (ISTC), National Research Council of Italy (CNR), Viale Marx 15, 00137, Rome, Italy.

[30] Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, Yalkut Yehudah, page 372 (translated from Hebrew).

[31] Jeremiah 31:8; Bereishis Rabbah 93.

[32] McCullough, M., Worthington, E., & Rachal, K. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321-336.

[33] Spring, J. (2004). How Can I Forgive You? New York: Harper Collins.

[34] Markman, H., Stanley, S. & Blumberg, S.L. (1994). Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass Publishers.

[35] Stone, D., Patton, B. & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Books.

[36] Shabbos 88b.

[37] The Ways of the Tzaddikim (Orchos Tzaddikim), Shaar HaKaas.

[38] Shemiras HaLashon, Chapter 8 (Shaar HaTeshuvah, 12 Teves).

[39] Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avos) 4:1, Psalms 119:99.

[40] Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC. American Psychological Association.

[41] Pennebaker, J. W. & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, 1243-1254.