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The LORD said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.” — Numbers 31:1-2
The Hebrew month of Elul, which means “search,” is a time of intense soul-searching and repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Elul is also a time to begin the process of asking for forgiveness for wrongs done to others. This is one of 13 devotions on repentance and forgiveness. To learn more about the shofar, which is blown every weekday during Elul¸ download our complimentary Bible study.
When someone hurts us, the pain often lingers. However, when we are the ones who hurt someone else, we are more apt to forget it and move on. It’s hard to confront our mistakes, yet when we ignore our wrongdoings, we prolong the pain of others and unknowingly harm ourselves.
Numbers 31:1-2 comes after the Midianites had harmed Israel in Numbers Chapter 25. They had sent their women to seduce the men of Israel and trick them into idolatry. The end result was the death of 24,000 Israelites and a hurting nation.
The truth is when the Midianites attacked the children of Israel it was both an affront to God and to the people. It was an attack on God because any attack on His children was tantamount to an attack on their Father. For this grievance, God forgave the Midianites. However, they had also inflicted pain upon the Israelites.
For that sin, God could not forgive them, because according to Jewish tradition, only the one who has been hurt can forgive. This is why in this week’s reading, God commanded Moses to lead a battle against the Midianites. They had not asked forgiveness, they would not ask forgiveness, and their punishment needed to be meted out.
Numbers 31:1-2 teaches us an important lesson, one that we Jews think about every year as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, draws near. As we approach the day when God will seal our judgment for the upcoming year, we recall that through the Yom Kippur service we can gain forgiveness from God for everything we have done except for one thing – what we have done wrong to another person. Only the individual who we have harmed can grant us that. That’s why the custom among Jews is to ask forgiveness from one another during the month of Elul before Yom Kippur arrives.
While it often seems easy to move on after hurting another person, the truth is that we leave a blemish on our own soul. God can cleanse us and forgive all our sins, but He cannot whiten the stains on our soul that come from wronging another person. It takes humility and courage to apologize for our mistakes. Yet, the alternative is bearing a sin that God cannot erase.
I want to encourage us all to ask forgiveness from those we may have hurt. And don’t worry so much about the other person’s response. Judaism maintains that a person needs to sincerely ask for forgiveness no more than three times. After that, God will forgive them even if the other person won’t. The other party takes the burden on their own soul. So be humble and courageous; fix it, then forget it.