Whoever is “ma’avir al midosav”, ma’avirin lo, they pass over his sins for him. As it says, ‘… forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression’ (Mikha 7:18). To whom does He forgive iniquity? To the one who remits transgression.- Rosh Hashanah 17a
With such a promise, we would surely be motivated to master this middah, “ma’avir al midosav”! But what exactly does it mean?
The first definition will look at is provided by Rashi (ad loc). It’s one who does not mete out judgment to those who mistreat him. If so, this middah is not only critical to improving our personal fate, but a key factor in causing — and therefore ending — the current exile.
Rav Yochanan said: “Yerushalaim was only destroyed because they judged by Torah law.” What, should they have practiced trial by torture? Rather say: That they upheld their judgments by Torah law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law.
- Bava Metzia 30b
They tell a story about a chassid who was quite wealthy. Every year he would give his rebbe a share of his income, and every year was more prosperous than the last. One year he came to see the rebbe, and found out that his rebbe wasn’t in. His rebbe had gon to see his own rebbe, the Chozeh of Lublin.
This was an education for the chassid. “My rebbe too has a rebbe? Then why should I be giving my money to this rebbe? Shouldn’t I instead give the money to the Chozeh? Wouldn’t that be the greater berakhah?” And so he did.
Very quickly, the chassid’s fortunes turned for the worse. The chassid was quite perplexed, being quite certain of his reasoning, so he went to ask of the Chozeh of Lublin for advice and an explanation.
The Chozeh answered, “As long as you weren’t exacting about whom you gave your tzedaqah too, Hashem wasn’t too exacting about whether or not you deserved the money he gave you. Once you started taking careful score about who got the money, Hashem began examining your actions carefully as well.”
This points out the obvious justice in our first quote. It’s measure-for-measure, being repaid in kind, for someone who forgives others to be forgiven by G-d. Rav Dessler (Michtav meiEliyahu vol V pg 70) writes that in addition to this, there is a second reason why heaven “passes over his sins”. Someone who is ma’avir al midosav connects himself to the community. He therefore is judged as part of that community, which is always more meritorious than having to stand on his own.
Rav Dessler continues by contrasting ma’avir al midosav with situations when we are called upon to act in a manner that is at the opposite extreme. We are obligated to hate evil. However, Tosafos write (Pesachim 113b “shera’ah”) that one still may not reach a point of “sin’ah gemurah” (complete hatred). Complete hatred would engender hatred in return, and he is presumably not permitted to hate you!
Another example, Pinechas, when he saw a leader of Shim’on acting immorally with a Midianite princess, is called a qana’i, an extremist, “beqan’o es qin’asi — when he avenged My vengeAnce”. Since he did so, he got a berakhah of shalom. However, the word is spelled with a broken vav; the complete letters spell only “shaleim”, whole. In the short run, his actions were shaleim, whole, performed for the right reasons. In the long term, this will bring shalom, but in the short term, there is no peace without someone being willing to be ma’avir al midosav.
This is directly connected to a point raised in an earlier entry on “Rights and Duties” (updated version 11/25/2009). American law is based on the Lockian notion that the purpose of law is to protect rights. Halakhah, while it occasionally directly implies the existence of rights (e.g. when speaking of “stealing sleep” or “stealing knowledge”), is based on a language of issur (prohibition) or chiyuv (obligation). Often, the pragmatic law is identical; the thief violates the law whether we phrase it as his abrogating his neighbor’s right to property, or as his violating the prohibition against theft. However, there is a difference in attitude:
Rights are about protecting “my own” from being encroached upon by others. Rather than looking at what I’m supposed to do, the system is set up to encourage me to make sure I got mine. From which the current culture of entitlement, and the insane abuse of tort law, are a minor step — “Do I still got mine?” to “How can I get mine?” The culture is set up to encourage such a progression.
But doesn’t a duty-based law carry its own dangers? If I am to only worry about the other getting theirs, but to be ma’avir al midosai, to forego my rights and not always demand justice when it comes to myself, aren’t I inviting myself to be abused? Does the Torah really expect up to be a nation of doormats, allowing ourselves to be stepped upon and mistreated?
Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [as chazan on a fast day enacted because of a drought] and recited twenty-four berakhos and was not answered. Rabbi Aqiva went [as chazan] after him and said, “Avinu malkeinu — our Father, our King, we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King – for Your sake have compassion for us!” and it started raining. “The rabbis started speaking negatively [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, “It is not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than that one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one is ma’avir al midosav and this one is not ma’avir al midosav.”
- Ta’anis 25b
Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #28) elaborates. If being a ma’avir al midosav is so important, wouldn’t that mean that Rabbi Aqiva greater than Rabbi Eliezer after all? Rather, there are two equally valid approaches to serving Hashem. Rabbi Aqiva, being from Beis Hillel, was ma’avir al midosav. Rabbi Eliezer was a member of Beis Shammai (Tosafos Shabbos 130b), and therefore stood upon strict justice (Shabbos 31a). Both approaches are equally valid, and until the ruling that we are to follow Beis Hillel, both Rabbi Aqiva’s approach and Rabbi Eliezer’s were equal paths to holiness. However, at a time when we can’t stand under the scrutiny of justice, it’s Rabbi Aqiva’s approach that is more appropriate.
This is akin to what we already saw in the words of Rav Dessler — there is a time for qana’us and a time to be ma’avir al midosav. Knowing when to use each is knowing whether it is time to seek shalom in the short-term, or to work for longer-term goals.
Until now, we’ve looked at the subject based upon Rashi’s definition, that the issue is knowing when not demanding strict justice is the greater good. However, this definition is different than one found in the actual gemara. The gemara (Yuma 23a) says it’s someone who forgives others when he is slighted.
With this definition, it’s not about an antonym to strict justice, but an antonym to neqamah, revenge. “The path of tzadiqim: They are shamed, but do not shame, listen to their insult and do not reply, and are content [even] in their struggles. About them the verse says, ‘And His beloved are like the emergence of the sun in its strength.’ (Shofetim 5:31)” (Shabbos 88b)
Another difference is that justice is objective, whereas being slighted is subjective, depending upon the sensitivities of the person. The Chokhmas Manoach brings this perspective to our gemara about the difference — and yet equal value — of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Aqiva. Rabbi Aqiva was more of the ma’avir al midosav because he was raised non-observant. He overcame his more natural middos — ma’avir al midosav in a literal sense.
How do we explain Rashi’s willingness to give a different translation to that of the gemara? Perhaps they are not so much defining ma’avir al midosav as giving examples of the behavior of someone who mastered this middah rather than the middah itself. In other words, if we view ma’avir al midosav as an attitude, we cannot see it directly in others, and therefore we look at how the person acts. The actual definition, therefore, would be a character trait that would motivate not demanding exact justice and standing on one’s rights and also motivate forgiving slights to one’s honor. We also know from Rav Dessler that this trait is one that mirrors its reward, getting forgiven for one’s sins, and that it unites one with the community. Last, as per the Chokhmas Manoach, it requires assuming a perspective other than the one that comes naturally.
What’s the difference between a rights-based morality and a duty-based one? The rights-based morality teaches one to guard their own “domain”, whereas duties force one to constantly guard everyone else’s. Such a person is lead to be ma’avir al midosav, because he is constantly focusing his decisions on what others stand to lose or gain.
A ma’avir al midosav, then, is someone who is able to assume the perspective of another. He is capable of forgiving slights when he can see the perspective of the person who made them. He would choose to sacrifice his inch, even if it’s coming to him by law, to avoid the cost of a foot to the other party. The ma’avir al midosav is not the one who seeks compromise or self-sacrifice, but rather one who seeks the win-win scenario, one that maximizes the gain for all.
Rabbi Dessler collected some advice for someone starting to develop this middah. As he cautions, his advice isn’t quite mastery of the middah for its own sake, but it does provide the habits from one can build. There are 10 such actions, perhaps suitable as a basis for a va’ad on the subject. See the page image, or (if necessary) my English translation.