Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781: Apologies Aren’t Easy, But They Are Necessary
I never should have said what I said…but once I did it was too late to take my words back. They took on a life of their own – and a few months later they still haunt me, even after I apologized.
This morning I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a true story, though I’m going to leave out a few details in order to avoid making the same mistake I made earlier. Some things are best left unsaid.
You might even think that this is a trivial story; it’s the kind of thing that happens every day of our lives. For me, however, it was a humbling moment of realization when I came to understand how easily we can hurt others and how hard it is to say, “I’m sorry.”
It all began with an innocent conversation between two colleagues. I had just finished presenting at a peer roundtable at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Seminar. My session was entitled: “Does the Synagogue Have a Future.”
After the session was over one colleague approached me to discuss further a point I had made during my presentation.
We ended up talking about the challenges of the congregational rabbinate, and I shared how I was surprised that a former congregant in Philadelphia had decided to join his congregation. He and I were friends and we often teased each other.
I made what we would call a snarky comment about his synagogue, totally in jest. We did this all the time and this moment seemed no different. Or at least that’s what I thought.
But my friend didn’t understood what I said in the spirit in which I’d said it. My words cut a little too deep.
We often forget how destructive words can be!
On Yom Kippur more than a third of the confessions that we make in the Vidui prayer deal with the abuse and misuse of language. But ritualized confession is not enough.
The Shulhan Arukh tells us that Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins between a person and his or her neighbor unless the guilty party seeks forgiveness first from the neighbor.
It then goes on to say, “A person must apologize even if he only teased someone verbally…”
Of course, we all do this. Teasing is something we do to show that we care about someone else. This seems to be particularly true among men.
It’s easier for us to show affection by calling someone a disparaging name than it is to express how much we care about them.
But the boundary between gentle teasing and harsh insult is often hard to identify. Without realizing it, we step over the line of propriety and feelings are hurt.
What began as fun can sometimes sting and hurt.
So I said something I shouldn’t have, plain and simple. And even though we had an understanding that what was said between colleagues should not be repeated, my friend went ahead and told one of the leaders of his congregation what I had said.
She immediately went to my former congregant – someone of whom I was also quite fond) and told her what I said… Well, you can imagine the rest of the story.
At the time I thought of the parable of the woman who came to her rabbi and told him that she wished to repent for her former sins. She had been a gossiper all her life and now she wished to make amends for her actions.
The Rabbi suggested that the woman take a feather pillow, go up on the roof of her home and tear it opened. She thought that this was a little strange, but the woman did what she was told.
No sooner did she tear open the lining of the pillow that a gust of wind came along and blew the feathers in every direction.
The woman returned to her Rabbi. “Well, rabbi, I did as you told me,” she said, “Now what should I do?” “Now I want you to go and collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow!” The woman blanched, “But, but, Rabbi how could I possibly collect all of the feathers?
They blew in every direction!” “That’s true,” said the Rabbi, “and that is how it is with words as well. Once spoken, words are carried away on the wind – there’s no way to retrieve them. You can’t take back what you’ve already said! You can only try harder in the future.”
So there you have it. When I realized what had happened and how a confidence had been shared with others, I was really upset. I was upset with my colleague for repeating my words rather than telling me that he was upset.
And I was even more upset with the president of his congregation who had taken advantage of this opportunity to hurt my relationship with a former congregant.
But most of all I was upset with myself for being so foolish, for sharing my own vulnerabilities, and for letting someone know how I felt.
It took a few sleepless nights for me to figure out what to do.
Slowly my anger gave way to the realization that the only person for whom I was responsible in this situation was me. Others may have acted inappropriately but that did not make what I did any less wrong or hurtful.
I could not change what they had done – but I could deal with my own behavior.
Lashon Hara is never justified especially when we use language as a weapon to put someone else down. I knew that I was wrong – and I needed to apologize.
It’s never easy to apologize. In the last year there have literally hundreds of public apologies. Apologies made by t.v. and movie celebrities, politicians, and countless professional athletes.
From NBA star Ja Morant apologizing for his tweet about police to actor Hill Harper apologizing for his comment about Dwayne Wade’s transgender child to Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney apologizing for dining indoors at a restaurant in Maryland while restaurants in Philadelphia remained closed to indoor dining.
The thing about most apologies these days is that they are more like non-apologies. More often than not, people preface public apologies with the statement “If I’ve offended anyone…” or simply a denial that this is really the way they think or act. In other words – they are saying – I may have said or done this but I don’t really think or approve of that behavior.
It’s like that old Flip Wilson comedic bit (for those who are old enough) – he used to play a character who was constantly saying, “The devil made me do it.”
The prize for the best non-apology of recent memory has to go to Rush Limbaugh who, after questioning whether Michael Fox suffered from Parkinson’s disease stated in a non-apology, “…I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act.”
Notice that one word completely negates his apology – IF – if I am wrong.
Finally, I sat down and wrote a letter of apology. I have to admit that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. I wish I had saved the seven or eight different versions of the letter I wrote before I finally came up with just the right words.
At first, I wrote a letter apologizing but not before I stated my own grievance and hurt. But I quickly realized that it was not an apology – it was a statement of why I was so angry.
Then I wrote the letter again, this time stating that I hadn’t really meant to hurt anyone and that my words were said in jest.
Again, I realized that this was not an apology but an excuse. Little by little I whittled the letter down from two pages to one page to about three quarters of a page.
And in the end I followed the advice of my intellectual and theological hero, Rambam, Moses Maimonides. I made my apology personal, direct and unconditional.
In Hilkhot Teshuvah Rambam’s discussion of repentance, he offers us a template for how to apologize to other people.
There must be several elements in a sincere statement of apology. First, one has to honestly acknowledge what one has done. There can be no attempts to explain or justify why one acted this way or that.
One must say: “This is what I did and I’m truly sorry I acted in this fashion.” They can’t just be words – they have to be honest and heartfelt. Then one must promise not to do whatever it was one has done again.
And finally, one has to offer to make reparations, if that’s possible.
In other words, approaching someone with a generic apology – I’m sorry if I’ve offended you in the past year is not really an apology at all Maimonides point of view. A person has to be to acknowledge the specific act which he or she has committed.
The problem is that most of us aren’t even aware that we have offended others; we have either overlooked the offence or we’ve put it out of our mind.
When we speak about Heshbon Hanefesh, then, about giving an accounting of our lives, we are dead serious. We’re supposed to wrack our brain and try to remember those offences we’ve committed in the months that have passed.
There is just no such thing as a generic apology.
I suspect we all have reasons to apologize for something we’ve done in the past year. These acts weigh us down and trouble us whether or not we think about them every day. We have disappointed the people in our lives.
We have regrets that we have never shared with others. We’ve been untrue and unfaithful to the people we are supposed to care about. We’ve been harsh and callous when we should have been attentive and attuned.
Or we might have inadvertently hurt others without even intending to do so.
In ancient Israel the Jewish people were required to bring two types of sacrifices for the infractions they committed.
One is called an Asham, a guilt offering, and the other is called a Hatat, a sin offering for acts inadvertently committed. Just because we didn’t mean to hurt someone doesn’t mean our actions are any less destructive or hurtful.
Finally, I mailed off the letter and things returned more or less to their previous order. Of course – nothing was ever quite the same between all of us – we don’t get over hurt quite so easily.
But I felt that my letter had cleared the air and at least comforted my conscience. It also made me a little more humble.
In retrospect, I have to say that there is at least one thing I should have done differently in making my apology. Looking back I suspect that I took the easy way out by writing a letter, rather than calling the parties involved and speaking to them on the phone and talking to them in person.
Nothing is more powerful than someone who is willing to face up to his or her wrongs and acknowledge them face to face… In the end I guess I was too embarrassed, and I found it easier to carefully compose my words rather than just come out and say them.
By the way, just as we’re obligated to ask for forgiveness, we also have to also be prepared to forgive others when they hurt us.
The Shulhan Arukh states: “An injured party should not be cruel and deny forgiveness for this is not the way of the Jewish people.
Once the person who commits the injury apologizes once or twice, and it is known that he has turned away from his sinful ways and regrets his evil, he should be forgiven.
One who is quick to forgive is praiseworthy – the spirit of the sages rests upon him.”
Not only that, but we should be willing to forgive ourselves – too often we are our own harshest judges, unwilling to forgive our wrong doings and constantly replaying the incident in our minds.
Regrets and self-loathing weighs us down and haunts our sleep and our private moments.
By now you might be wondering, why am I talking about forgiveness on erev Rosh Hashanah, rather than waiting to talk about this subject next week on Yom Kippur?
Isn’t Yom Kippur a more appropriate time to discuss asking for forgiveness and apologizing?
Talking about apologizing on Yom Kippur is really too late. The time to think about the apologies we owe others is right now, at the beginning of the aseret yimei teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.
On Yom Kippur we ask the Holy One to grant us atonement for the wrongs we’ve committed against God – but that assumes that we’ve made peace with all the people in our lives. The next several days are the time to think about our lives, make peace with others and then make peace with ourselves.
Is there someone to whom you owe an apology? There is nothing sadder than life long friends who part ways over petty differences, brothers and sisters who hold grudges over long forgotten differences.
We all know stories like this. I have attended too many funerals where the members of one family could not sit Shiva together, and weddings where loved ones have been left out.
We are quick to judge others, but we don’t always stop to think about the ways in which we’ve wounded others ourselves.
I’m not suggesting that you haven’t been hurt by others. What I am suggesting is that we focus not on what others did to us, but what we may have done to others. That is the only thing for which we are responsible or for that over which we have control.
Make peace with the people in your life so that you can make peace with yourself. We can’t change how they feel or what they did – but we can honestly look at what we did and try to fix the mistakes we’ve made.
So this week why not pick up the phone call someone you’ve hurt? There is no such thing as a life without regrets. But regrets can become either burdens that interfere with our present happiness and restrict our future, or a motivation to move forward.
If you find yourself overcome by regret, do something about it. That is really what the aseret yemei Teshuvah are all about.
Rosh Hashanah is a beginning; it’s an opportunity and a gift. Why not take advantage of it? Words can hurt but they can also heal.
An apology is a chance to make right that which has gone wrong in our lives. Of course, it takes a lot more than words to apologize – but they are a good beginning…
Shanah Tova. Wishing you a year of sweetness and good health.
-Rabbi Jacob Herber