The Talmud says that it is not enough to compensate a person for a wrongdoing that you inflicted upon him. The true measure of forgiveness is a request for forgiveness. Deeds don’t matter. Forgiveness is in your heart.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares a gift for his brother Esau. The gift consists of at least 550 valuable animals, and the thought behind the gift was, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”
And when Jacob finally meets Esau, Esau asks Jacob, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” And Jacob answers, “To gain my lord’s favor.”
After saying “for to see your [Esau’s] face is like the face of God, and you have received me favorably,” Jacob implores Esau to accept Jacob’s gift and Esau does. Not a word of forgiveness does Jacob utter.
Begging forgiveness is hard. Probably you all have a story like mine. I missed the funeral of a husband of a dear friend of my mother (after my mother died), and I spent many years avoiding the woman. My failure to attend the funeral and to attend shivah gnawed at me: my lack of decency was many mornings the first thought on my mind. Eventually, I apologized to the woman, and she said, “I will forgive you, but I will never forget.” When I apologized, a cloud lifted and I never was bothered with my guilty feelings again.
Jacob acted like presents can remedy wrongs, but he didn’t have forgiveness in his heart. Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” but you have to mean it.