“Even though he repays him he is not forgiven until he asks him.” (Bava Kamma 92a) In our last couple of postings we have discussed the five categories of damages one must pay if one assaults another. These can easily add up to many, many thousands of dollars, possibly more. Yet such payments are not enough. One must ask for forgiveness from the aggrieved, something that has become part of our Yom Kippur preparations.

The Mishna explains that this requirement is derived from the encounter between Abraham and Avimelech, the King of Gerar. Abraham had moved to Gerar and declared Sarah to be his sister. When Avimelech brought Sarah into his harem, apparently planning to lie with her, G-d appeared to Avimelech warning him not to touch her. “Return the man’s wife…and he will pray for you.” (Breisheet 20:7) It is this verse, which serves as the basis for the obligation for asking for forgiveness.

The fact that we derive this requirement from a non-Jew teaches the universal need we all have to ask for forgiveness. That one should grant forgiveness when asked is the next teaching of Mishna.  “From where [do we derive] that if he does not forgive him he is mean? As it says ‘and Abraham prayed to G-d and G-d healed Avimelech.’” (Briesheet 20:17)

This is a very beautiful and important teaching (and one most appropriate for the season). However this Mishna is very difficult to understand. The proof text - “return the man’s wife” - brought by the Mishna does not seem to prove that which it purports to do. The verse tells us that G-d told Avimelech to return Sarah to Abraham. Nowhere does Avimelech ask Abraham for forgiveness for taking his wife – or sister. In fact he is upset at Abraham, calls him in and berates him. “What have you done to us? What sin have I done that you bring upon me and my kingdom this great sin?” If this is asking for forgiveness I would hate to see what one might say when one is not asking for forgiveness.

One might suggest that when Avimelech gave Abraham gifts and told him “behold my land is before you, settle wherever you please” he also asked for forgiveness. This gift giving is followed by Abraham’s prayer[1], which the Mishna understands as a demonstration of willingness of Abraham to forgive implying such forgiveness was asked for. However if so, ikaar chaser min hasefer, the main teaching is missing! If the Torah wants to teach about forgiveness why write about gift giving? Is not the point of the Mishna that monetary compensation is not enough?

Perhaps we can suggest a different, unconventional approach. It is not Avimelech who must apologize, but Abraham. Avimelech in fact did nothing wrong, as G-d Himself asserts “I know that you did this with a pure heart and that is why I prevented you from touching her.” (Breisheet 20:6) It was Abraham who owed Avimelech an apology for not being fully truthful about his relationship with Sarah and for putting Avimelech’s life at risk.

Yet this approach does not seem to solve anything. Nowhere in the text do we find Abraham asking Avimelech for forgiveness either. With no direct request for forgiveness to be found in the entire episode the Mishna must have some additional message it wants to impart.

While one must ask for “forgiveness” such can take many forms. One can, as our commentaries do, debate whether Abraham acted appropriately under the circumstances. Abraham surely believed he acted appropriately and was doing what he had done years earlier when travelling to Egypt. That encounter turned out quite well and there was no reason for Abraham to think twice about his actions. From his perspective there was little to apologize for. Yet even if he in fact did nothing wrong it is clear that from Avimelech’s perspective Abraham had wronged him[2]. And for that he must apologize. But in such circumstances, where it is most difficult to distinguish between right and wrong saying “I’m sorry” accomplishes little. Rather it is an explanation of one’s actions that is called for. 

“And Abraham said: 'Because I thought: Surely the fear of G-d is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake. Moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife[3]. And it came to pass, when G-d caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which you shall show me; at every place where we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.'” (Breisheet 20:11-13)

That Avimelech accepted this explanation is clear from his reaction. “And Avimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.”

Often we sin by doing something that is clearly wrong, hurting others in the process. For this we must ask for forgiveness. Many other times we, like Abraham are faced with a dilemma for which there is no clear right or wrong. We do our best but such in hindsight may not have been the best choice. Only later do we find out how others were hurt by our actions. For this an explanation even more than an apology is needed.

Abraham and Avimelech demonstrate the path to reconciliation. Avimelech clearly explained why he was upset at Abraham, telling him how he nearly died because of Abraham’s actions. Abraham did not mince words in explaining his reasons for his actions. The result was gracious acceptance, gifts and prayer…and the bearing of children for all involved.

[1] Most interestingly the Torah does not actually say that Abraham prayed for the healing of Avimelech. Such is implied by the fact that the Torah tells us that G-d healed Avimelech. Yet one could argue that Abraham prayed to thank G-d for the fact that no harm came to Sarah and for the great wealth he acquired.

[2] And the same can be said of Avimelech. While he may have thought he had done nothing wrong, Abraham did not see it that way. And for that Avimelech must also seek forgiveness. The ambiguity of the Mishna is deliberate. Both Avimelech and Abraham must seek forgiveness – a most important lesson for us all. 

[3] Abraham’s claim seems hard to understand when one considers that in the immediately prior verse the Torah tells us that Abraham and Sarah moved to Gerar. Did Abraham think he could cover up his relationship on a long-term basis? This would seem to indicate that he truly believed his claim that Sarah was his sister (see Breisheet 20:13). And when “caught” he would explain why he made such a claim in the first place.