When Moshe Forgives

“…The people came to Moshe and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against G-d and against you…” So Moshe prayed on behalf of the people…” – Bamidbar 21:7

וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל משֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי דִבַּרְנוּ בַה’ וָבָךְ . . וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל משֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם – במדבר כא, ז

The Bnei Yisrael spoke against G-d and Moshe and were attacked by venomous snakes, but Moshe prayed on their behalf. “From here we learn,” says Rashi, “that one who is asked to forgive should not be cruel about pardoning.”

From the Talmud, however, it seems that this principle is learned from a much earlier source, from Avraham’s prayers to heal Avimelech and his household from their punishment for abducting Sarah.  The Mishna (Bava Kama 8:7) remarks, “From where do we learn that one who is asked to forgive should not be cruel? As it is written, ‘And Avraham prayed to G-d; and G-d healed Avimelech’ (Beraishis 20:17).

the brass serpent

This raises the question on Rashi. If we have already learned this ethic of forgiveness from Avraham, what more can we learn “from here”? Evidently, according to Rashi, Moshe’s conduct teaches us something that Avraham’s conduct does not.

The difference between them lies in the Torah’s emphasis that Moshe prayed “on behalf of the people.” Avraham forgave Avimelech to the extent that Avimelech would not be punished for his actions. Moshe, however, prayed “on behalf of Bnei Yisrael;” he forgave them and prayed for their broader well-being, as though they had never sinned against him at all.

G-d’s response to Moshe’s prayers likewise reflected this degree of forgiveness. He instructed Moshe to place a brass serpent upon a pole, and all who would gaze upon it would be healed. As Rashi (on (21:8) explains “Does a snake cause death or life? Rather, when Israel looked heavenward [toward the serpent] and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed.” Hence, commensurate with Moshe’s concern for Bnei Yisrael, the brass serpent not only cured them of their punishment, it fully rehabilitated them for the long-term as well.

Rashi therefore learns from Moshe that “we should not be cruel about pardoning”—even our pardoning should be generous, not cruel and begrudging.  We should harbor no resentment whatsoever toward those who ask us forgiveness, and even seek out their good and wellbeing.

—Likutei Sichos, vol. 28, pp. 138-144


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