We have all done it; wronged another in a manner in which the person we have harmed does not know who caused them the hurt. The harm could be relatively minor; sitting at a sporting event we spilled some of our drink on the coat of the person seated in front of us. The damage may be financial; unseen by anyone we accidently scratched another car in the parking lot. Or the wrong could have caused significant long term harm to another; we shared confidential information, inappropriately, resulting in the person we spoke about losing friendships or employment opportunities.
In such cases it seems so much easier to keep quiet rather than identify oneself to the wronged party. God alone knows of this wrongdoing, we tell ourselves, so confessing to God is sufficient. We think; the coat is stained, the car is scratched or the reputation is soiled – what good can come of me identifying myself as the guilty party?
The Mishnah in Tractate Yoma 8:9 teaches: “For sins committed against another, Yom Kippur (i.e. confessing to God) does not atone, until one appeases one’s fellow.” The Mishnah does not distinguish between a wrong known and unknown to the injured party. When we have wronged another we need to ask forgiveness.
Confessing to the one we have wronged accomplishes many things, especially if this acknowledgment and apology comes quickly. The sooner the harm is recognized the sooner and easier it is to repair the damage. Allowing the stain, be it physical (the coat) or personal (the reputation) to set, makes it more difficult to repair. Letting the wronged individual know that you are responsible for the damage may ease their hurt and encourage responsible behavior on their part. Hakarat ha-chet – recognition of the sin [one has committed], the first step of t’shuvah – repentance, creates an awareness on the part of the one who has caused the hurt to be more careful in the future.
There is one important exception to this making of amends; when doing so will cause the victim additional anguish. According to Rabbi Israel Salanter (see Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume I, p.165) “the desire to repent shouldn’t give us the right to cause emotional pain to our victim.” We are obligated, in such an instance, to repair any damages we caused if there is a way of doing so that will not cause further harm.
God, we are taught by our Rabbis, created repentance even before creating the world. Making use of this Divine blessing saves us from despair, helps us use guilt positively, reminds us that we can grow and change and it transforms our relationships with others and with God. Let us all use it well!
The simple answer is yes - if you have done wrong, then, as the Mishnah states about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement does not atone until you have made things right with them. Just because they do not know you have wronged them does not mean that they have not been wronged. A good example of this is lashon hara. You may have said something bad about someone and they did not know it was you, or even that it was said. However, damage has still been done and you are required to put it right, as best you can. (It becomes a more challenging question when you have to determine whether telling them what you have done to wrong them may do more damage than the original wrong.)