Right the Wrong
Some years ago I was in a flat-mate situation with some people I did not know beforehand so I did not know them and they didn’t know me. They were renting the apartment and subletting a room to me so they had no longstanding connection to the flat, and they were not from that city anyway. We were not very close; I did my own thing and they did theirs. It was a short-term, summer arrangement, and I left with no intention or effort to stay in touch with them. To get to the main point, when I left, there was a disagreement about money and I didn’t pay them what they thought I owed, and in retrospect, they were probably right and I was wrong. The question is, now that I have become religious after several years have gone by, what do I do now to rectify the wrong? Given the situation I described, there’s no way of finding any of them. I don’t even remember their last names or where they’re from. What should I do?
First, may I say that I admire your decision to become religious, and the decision to try to rectify this wrong is an example of why becoming religious was the right choice. Still, even religious people are not always so honest and eager to pursue what’s right, so the fact that you are asking what to do in what seems a hopeless situation is also very admirable.
There are two basic approaches in Jewish teachings to this type of scenario.
One is based on the idea that even if you can’t restore money or make restitution to those whom you owe or have harmed, you can still do something that might repay them or benefit them. The specific case discussed in the sources involves someone who has harmed the public in general, but does not know specifically who. He is advised to contribute to some public need with the understanding that those whom he harmed will eventually directly or indirectly derive benefit from his contribution and thereby receive restitution for the wrong. Although the example given (to build a public bathhouse) is not particularly relevant today, one may do the equivalent by contributing to a school, hospital, community center or the like with the hope that those he’s harmed will benefit.
This scenario, while generally similar to yours, is still not quite enough. The reason is because you have no way of knowing where they are. So now what?
The second approach is to fully regret your wrong and express to G-d your desire to fix things if you could. Ask G-d to intervene on your behalf in order to enable you to find these people somehow so you can correct what you’ve done. You should also simultaneously forgive them of anything they may have done to wrong you and then offer a heart-felt prayer to G-d, that until you find them, just as you forgive them with a full heart, so may He cause them to fully forgive you.
This way, you will have done teshuva and expressed your willingness to correct things if you could. Regarding this our Sages taught that one who intends to do good but the circumstances prevent him from realizing his intentions is considered by G-d as if he actually did the good he intends. By fully forgiving them you fulfill the teaching that just as you judge others so you will be judged, and this will stir Divine favor on your behalf to cause them to forgive you.
This last approach might seem a bit far-fetched, but I know someone who was in a similar situation and it actually helped. He also wronged people he shared a flat with before becoming religious and later had no way of finding them to right the wrong. He did teshuva, prayed that he might somehow meet up with them some day and asked G-d to stir their hearts to forgive him in the meantime.
Every Elul he would recall this mistake of his and repeat his prayers. A full twenty years later, in Elul, he was on a plane to Israel and he couldn’t believe his eyes — there was one of his old flat-mates. The problem was that when this chance to atone finally arrived, he was so embarrassed that he couldn’t muster up the courage to approach the person. And what if they started arguing right there in the plane?! So he decided to wait until landing to approach the person in the baggage claim area.
But by the time he got to the carousel the person was nowhere to be seen. He had lost the opportunity he had been praying for so long – or at least he thought so. As he was leaving the terminal, who pulled up just beside him through customs? The flat-mate. The offender introduced himself and made his declaration, explaining that he had become religious and had regretted his mistake all these years. The flat-mate waived his claim, explaining that he had also become religious and had decided to forgive him long ago!