Jewish Journal


September 16, 2011

It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry…


Jews tend to be a forgiving people. We also tend to be an apologetic people. There is good reason for this: We are commanded to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. We also are encouraged (strongly) to accept apologies from others when they are sincere.

Forgiveness is such an integral part of Jewish culture that we actually have liturgy dedicated to the act. If you’ve ever participated in a High Holy Days service, you might have seen people beat their chest during Ashamnu (which translates as “we have trespassed”).

But when we pray during services, we are asking forgiveness from God. Asking forgiveness from others actually can be more difficult. And, since the High Holy Days are the Super Bowl of forgiveness-seeking, you might want to get started on your list of apologies before you even think about the food for your break-the-fast party. With so many potential transgressions for which to apologize — betrayal, obstinacy, provocation, slander, etc. — it can be tough to know exactly how, and from whom, to ask for forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is the most essential element in allowing human beings to change and grow,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “Asking for forgiveness requires the courage to go back and revisit the regretted action,” Vogel said. “The first question we must ask [ourselves] is, ‘Would I do the act again?’ We don’t want to repeat negative actions in our lives.”

True apologies and forgiveness thus require a good bit of introspection, and, Vogel says, “It is only through this process that we can grow. It is only by first going backward that we can go forward.”

In addition, it’s not meaningful simply to apologize for something if you don’t truly believe you were at fault. Kind of like the child who hits his brother, then says, “I’m sorry.” Is he really sorry? Maybe. He’s probably sorry he was caught, but chances are he’s not sorry for the action.

Of course, this ideal requires us to admit we’ve done something wrong — not a simple task for most people. With adults, there are likely times when an apology is appropriate, but the inner feeling simply is not there. But that’s the key: The feeling and the action must be genuine.

So, if you’re ready to seek forgiveness from someone you have wronged, there are a couple of ways to do it. You can approach the person directly and ask them for forgiveness, though that’s not always the best method.

“While the preferred method of forgiveness is verbal, there are some situations in which a letter might be preferable,” Vogel said. “The problem with speaking directly to people is that they often stop listening early on in the discussion. Either they hear something they disagree with or respond before the entire apology has been uttered.”

Sometimes it’s better to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

“A well-crafted letter can give a larger context of the situation and allow the recipient to digest the entire apology,” Vogel said. “A written letter of apology should always end with an invitation to speak directly.”

While it’s always a good idea to make things right with those we have wronged, the High Holy Days tend to put these sorts of things into focus for many Jews.

“The High Holy Days are when we realize our mortality,” Vogel said. “When we celebrate creation on Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, we are symbolically acknowledging that time is finite. Yom Kippur ends with a ritual that is reminiscent of the Jewish prayer Vidui that is recited on our deathbed.”

The immediacy of the High Holy Days tends to encourage people to act.

So, as we reflect on our sins against God, we should reflect on our sins against each other, too. The shofar blasts call us to attention and to action: “Do we deserve this gift of time? Will we make good use of that time? It is the acceptance of our mortality that should inspire us to act with immediacy,” Vogel said.

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