Jewish Journal

True paths to Teshuvah

Destination requires a journey of actions, not just words

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Posted on Sep. 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Illustration by William Deutsch

Illustration by William Deutsch

Daniel Rope knew the apology to his sister would be the hardest one to make.

His mother, after all, was his mother — throughout his drug addiction, starting at age 12, Dan’s mother had stood by him, believed he would somehow pull out of it. She was at all his court appearances, she went to Alcoholics Anonymous to figure out the best way to help him, she implicitly forgave him for stealing from her, for keeping her up at night wondering if he was dead or alive, for wrecking a family already devastated by the death of her husband from colon cancer when the children were 6 and 3.

But Katie was different.

Katie had given up on her older brother.

By the time she was 20, she hadn’t spoken to Dan in a few years, and she had reconciled herself to the idea that his addiction would kill him.

Now, she was sitting across the table at the Greek restaurant he had taken her to after Friday night services at Beit T’Shuvah, the recovery facility where he was living. He had been out of prison and sober for more than a year.

Katie remembers Dan’s voice quivering when he told her he was sorry.

Sorry for bringing drugs and shady people into their home; sorry for stealing the money she had earned at Domino’s Pizza and was saving for her trip to Europe after high school; sorry for preoccupying their mother, for making her keep his secrets, for missing her childhood.

Sorry for not being her big brother.

Katie sat in the restaurant sobbing.

Katie and Dan both know it wasn’t that 10-minute apology that made them the best friends they are today. But that acknowledgement more than a year ago opened up a conversation and process that couldn’t have happened without the words “I’m sorry.”

“My resentment for him was so intense and passionate that, if it wasn’t for the way that an apology neutralizes a situation, I think I would still hold all those things in my heart,” said Katie, now 22 and a philosophy major at UCLA. “I think I would still hold some grudge toward him for never recognizing the truth and the severity of the situation that his addiction caused in our family.”

Apologies hold the power to transform individuals, to restore relationships, to move people forward rather than leaving them stuck in the past.

Perhaps that is why apologies and forgiveness are so central to the High Holy Days, the most intense time of introspection on the Jewish calendar.

Over and over in the High Holy Days liturgy, Jews ask God for forgiveness and praise God as forgiving and merciful. The liturgy is meant to inspire repentance, and to bring worshippers to emulate God by actively participating in a culture of forgiveness. The 30 days before Rosh Hashanah and then the 10 days following, culminating in Yom Kippur, are designated for preparing for divine forgiveness by asking for human forgiveness.

The holiday’s earthly application can be compelling even for those who can’t connect to an image of God as judge in the sky before the open Book of Life.

“A good portion of the liturgy is about you getting to play God and holding yourself accountable,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, an author and speaker on spirituality, and president of Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York.

“If you understand that this is a place of judgment internally, if you can locate where to judge yourself, you’ll get to a better place and become more forgiving yourself.”

Having to directly admit offenses to another human being gives concrete form to the abstract ideas of honesty, humility and empathy. 

“This concept of seeking forgiveness is a very wholesome concept, it’s a chastening concept,” said Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. “It gets you off your high horse of infallibility and allows you to admit to yourself and to others, ‘I’m not infallible.’ ”

Recognizing shortcomings can help make people more tolerant of others’ foibles or transgressions and, ideally, creates human interaction with less strife.

“Basically, what an apology does is it puts you back on an even keel. When you have dissed a person, you are saying you are above that person. Now we have to create equality again,” said Kula, author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (2006), and host of the 2003 public television series “Simple Wisdom.”

Of course, apologizing is hard.

“Admitting offenses is self-diminishing to an extent. People don’t like to face the fact that they’re nasty or have lied or stolen, and asking forgiveness is a confession of an inadequacy,” Pressman said.

But Katie Rope understands that any humiliation is washed away by the relief an apology brings to both parties.

“Apologies are so crucial for loving someone, you don’t ever need to feel ashamed for apologizing because it’s such a healing experience and takes so much courage to do,” she said.

The fact that human connectedness is at the center of what is supposed to be one of the most ethereally focused times of year is no accident.

Katie and Dan Rope

“The point of starting a new year is to start with relationships. Judaism is not a religion of being by yourself,” said Hazzan Judy Greenfield, who founded the Nachshon Minyan, a worship and educational community in Encino. “God puts people in our lives for a reason. It’s not enough for us to achieve oneness with God. We’re not allowed to sit in solitude.”

Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who runs the residential recovery facility Beit T’Shuvah, has seen the transformative effect of making amends.

“Teshuvah is probably one of the most powerful experiences that people can have. It’s up there with childbirth and things like that, because it is a tremendous reconnection. It’s somebody going and saying, ‘I have ruined our relationship, and I am just so sorry. I am devastated by it, and I’m in pain over what I did to you, and here’s what I believe I have done to you and how I have harmed you.’ I become somebody who then validates their reality,” Borovitz said. “There is nothing more powerful than that.”

An Apology 50 Years in the Making

Eileen Horowitz didn’t even know she was waiting for an apology when her sister, Ann Gierum, walked into her office a year and half ago.

It was the day after Horowitz’s retirement dinner, and Gierum had been swept up in the emotion and pride of the outpouring directed at her sister, who was the head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School for 14 years and an educator for 40 years.

“She blurted out that she was sorry, and she said sorry for what — she had a litany of reasons, but mostly for not being the big sister she should have been, not helping to raise me or take care of me or be there for me in the way that sisters could be there for one another,” Horowitz said.

The family had been dysfunctional to begin with, Horowitz said, and their mother died of breast cancer in 1957, when Eileen was 9 and Ann was 16. Her sister was what Horowitz calls a 1950s “Pink Lady” —  always hanging out at the corner luncheonette with her friends, only resentfully taking her sister with her when their father forced the issue, and ignoring her the rest of the time. Horowitz ended up taking care of her father and the house, doing most of the cooking and shopping.

The two were by no means estranged as adults. They did sisterly things for each other — attended one another’s weddings and lifecycle events, stayed in touch, were there during illnesses. But the lingering resentment meant that they were never close and never very comfortable with each other. They didn’t have much of a relationship, and there were times when Horowitz traveled to New York without even penciling in a visit to her sister.

But with her apology, Gierum exposed 55 years of buried emotions, and the sisters, now 69 and 63, are closer than they have ever been, discovering their similarities and what they like about each other.

“It was almost as if — I don’t know — almost as if I had been waiting my whole life to hear her say that, even though I hadn’t thought I was. The moment she said it, we were both just sobbing,” Horowitz said.

Working in schools, Horowitz is practiced in the art of apologies and forgiveness. When students had issues, she would often bring them into her office for role playing, taking them to the moment where things went wrong and figuring out a different ending.

“It was never enough to just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ They had to learn to verbalize what it was they were sorry for. I had to help the person who was apologizing get into the skin of the person they hurt,” Horowitz said. “I think that was what was so powerful for me — my sister had gotten into my skin and felt what it was like to be me.”

If kids are pushed to be specific about what they did wrong and how it hurt the other person, even a “sorry” mumbled just to get off the hook could have a cumulative benefit.

“Sometimes with kids, it’s like cognitive behavioral therapy — this is Judaism’s deed over creed,” said Wendy Mogel, psychologist and best-selling author whose forthcoming book is titled “The Blessing of a B Minus.” “They don’t necessarily feel it, but practicing the behavior can change their behavior next time.”

Of course, the same is true for adults, and Judaism embraces apology rituals — Yom Kippur’s “Al Chet” (for these transgressions) prayer lists hundreds of human flaws, for instance, and the prayers of Selichot, which literally means apologies, are recited leading up to the High Holy Days. The year-round liturgy contains daily references to repentance and forgiveness, and a prayer of confession (Vidui) is one of the final prayers a person utters before death.

During the month of Elul before the High Holy Days, observant Jews can often be heard asking each other, “Do you mochel [forgive] me?” Some schools and camps circulate “mechilah-grams” (notes of apology).

But Kula wonders if these gestures have become too routine, replacing the hard work of real apologies and forgiveness.

“It’s called religious behaviorism, which is what happens when the ritual gets disconnected from the experience,” Kula said.

Certainly during High Holy Day services, people rarely reach these moments of intense introspection. Kula thinks rabbis who focus on politics or on grand themes in their sermons should instead turn inward, and share their personal struggles with repentance, giving congregants the tools to do the same.

“The goal of the High Holy Days is not to be Jewish. The goal of the High Holy Days is to use a very sophisticated technology to help people become more deeply human,” Kula said.

Living Your Amends

When Dan Rope wanted to start with a clean slate, he had a lot to apologize for.

He’d started drinking and doing drugs when he was 12 and had landed in juvenile hall for robbery by ninth grade. He lied, manipulated, ditched school. His mother, Valerie Rope, was at first oblivious but eventually caught on and had him shipped him off in the middle of the night to a school in Maine. He stayed sober while he was there, but after graduation he started doing drugs again, this time speed and heroin. He robbed apartment buildings, forged checks, stole from his sister, stole and totaled his grandmother’s car, and robbed his mother’s house, taking jewelry, cash, anything of value.

He landed in jail five or six times; he was homeless for a while.

Finally, he was sentenced to state prison for a year and a half for violating probation.

“In prison, it was the ultimate powerless feeling. It was somewhere I did not want to be, that I never wanted to go back to,” Dan said.

The day he was released, he got off the bus, and his mom drove him straight to Beit T’Shuvah.

He reconnected with his Jewish roots — he had been putting on tefillin with a rabbi while in prison — and began working through the 12 steps with his sponsor, a man who is now one of his best friends.

He was sober around nine months when he got to step nine — speaking your amends to those you’ve hurt. He started with his mother.

“I started off by saying I know I wasn’t the son she raised me to be — I wanted to emphasize that. I didn’t want her to think she didn’t raise me right — she did an amazing job at raising me. This was about me taking responsibility for what I had done,” Dan said.

His mom, Valerie, said it wasn’t the words that mattered, but the idea that everything was now on the table.

“With an apology, there’s this spoken truth between you, and you’re not making assumptions,” she said. “It brings a certain kind of powerful release, and there is a bonding that happens because it is not just assumed that you carry on and everything looks good. The trust that was devastated over the years has to be rebuilt, and speaking your amends directly to the other person whom you’ve hurt is the first step toward healing what is broken.”

Of course, Valerie also knew that there was substance to her son’s apology — he was living a sober life, working on repairing relationships, becoming responsible, building trust.

“The real apology is the lived apology over time, because you’re providing proof. Otherwise, it’s a theory or a pretty concept,” said Mogel, the psychologist.

In fact, living your amends is the last of three steps to repentance in traditional Jewish sources. Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish scholar, outlined a process, based on talmudic sources, that starts with recognizing and admitting the wrongdoing, apologizing to the person you have hurt with your sin, and then each time you are faced with a similar situation, behaving in a different way.

Modern-day rabbis and psychologists have adapted and adopted this approach.

“Our tradition is worried about action: What is the person doing to warrant forgiveness, and what are they doing to make sure that they will not perpetrate this kind of offense again?” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, and author of “Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics” (2003).

Beit T’Shuvah’s Borovitz said the key is to have a plan of action, for transgressions both large and small.

This year, Borovitz sought to atone for being chronically late and missing appointments — familiar offenses, to be sure.

“Every time I’ve blown someone off, it’s like a statement that they’re not worthy, that they don’t matter to me. That is not true, but that is the truth of my actions, so it is a big deal,” he said.

He hired an assistant, and she’s been keeping him on track.

“How many of us have said ‘I’m sorry’ and then done the same thing over and over again to the same people, but we want to get off the hook with ‘I’m sorry’? But teshuvah says you have to have a plan to be serious about your amends,” Borovitz said.

That is true for an individual as well as a group.

Dorff, a national expert on ethics, holds up the 1965 Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic church apologized to the Jews for centuries of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism, as a prime example of a sincere communal apology that was followed up by action.

In the years that followed Vatican II, the church revised prayer books, took responsibility for its actions during the Holocaust and set up interfaith dialogues. The pope also recognized the State of Israel and prayed for forgiveness at the Western Wall, Dorff said.

I’m Sorry, But ...

But what of those all-too-common apologies that are transparently self-serving, shallow and insincere?

“We hear a lot in politics and in real life, where people say, ‘I’m sorry if did anything to offend or upset you.’ That is such a passive-aggressive way of really saying, ‘I’m sorry you’re such an oversensitive baby, and I had no idea you would react this way,’ ” Mogel said. “It’s a way of apologizing while entirely keeping our hands clean, and it infuriates people because it looks like the person is doing something that requires sacrifice and humility, and all they’re doing is offering pro forma, shallow gestures.”

The same is true for apologies that come with a “but.”

“ ‘I didn’t mean to do that, but it was a long day, but I was under so much pressure, but the dog ate my homework.’ Any ‘but’ after an ‘I’m sorry’ — any but, even if it’s justified — undermines the apology,” Kula said.

Equally weak are apologies that preclude the chance for any sort of meaningful exchange.

“Do I do it in person, on voicemail, by e-mail? You always know to check your motivation. I know if I apologize over e-mail, it is a half-assed apology because I don’t want to confront the full dimension of what I did,” Kula said.

Even worse, Borovitz said, are the corporate settlements where companies agree to pay up but won’t admit guilt.

More often than not, public apologies, whether at a press conference or in a smaller setting, like a staff meeting, are about raising one’s own stature.

Perhaps it is the impersonal nature of celebrity and corporate apologies — those of Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods and BP come to mind — that makes them ring hollow. Apologies are about rebuilding relationships, but celebrity is a one-way connection, so apologies to a vague general public tend to feel flat.

And yet, Americans are addicted to a ritual of public mea culpas.

“If you are willing to publicly humiliate yourself and apologize, you will be forgiven. If you are not willing to publicly apologize, the public won’t forgive you,” said Arleen Sorkin, co-author with Paul Slansky of “My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them.”

The idea that public apologies equal automatic forgiveness might stem from the Christian conception of forgiveness — you confess, and you are absolved of sin, Dorff said.

“I think part of the problem is we live in a Christian culture in which apologies and forgiveness are taken much less seriously than in Jewish tradition, in part because of the underlying belief that Jesus forgives all sins,” Dorff said. “I’m not saying Christianity doesn’t undertake apologies in a serious way, but I think Judaism does so much more seriously, because we don’t have that escape route.”

‘I Feel Like I Have a Brother Again’

Dan wasn’t looking for an escape route in his apologies.

He went to his father’s grave.

“I made amends to him, too, for not being there for Mom and for making her wonder where I was all the time, and just for not being the man in the family,” he said.

He rebuilt trust with his grandmother, even went to live with her for a while, helping her around the house, taking her marketing, just hanging out.

Although he lives in New York now, he and Katie have built a close relationship and talk all the time.

“Every day that Dan does well, I heal more,” Katie said. “The way he lives his life now, every day is an apology. I completely forgive him now. Every time I talk to him, I feel like I have a brother again.”

Dan’s teshuvah also opened up new avenues of reconciliation for the whole family.

Katie and Valerie fixed their damaged relationship, since Katie grew up feeling that Dan’s problems pulled her mother away from her. They have all drawn closer to cousins, aunts and uncles who had become distant, and reached out to their dad’s family.

“Now that my brother has shown us that you can apologize and come out of a bad situation, we’re starting to talk to them again and build relationships,” Katie said.

In March, Dan went to Israel on a Birthright trip for people in recovery, where he met and fell in love with the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi from New York. The two are getting married in November in Israel, and they have recommitted themselves to Judaism, slowly taking on kashrut and Shabbat observance. 

“I remember when I was 13 and 14, thinking it was hopeless — I was not good in school, I was unemployable, all I could do was drugs and crime,” Dan said. “Then, at 18 or 19, I thought I couldn’t get my life together, that I would never mend relationships with my family, never get a job, never find a wife. It really seemed overwhelming.”

He still has a way to go — background checks ended the interview process on the last three jobs he was close to getting. And he knows he will always struggle with his impulses.

But he is overwhelmed with gratitude when he looks at his life today.

“If I hadn’t gone and made amends, my relationships would not be the same. Now there’s so much emotion and so much love. They respect me so much more for being able to say this is what I did and I’m sorry, and I’ll try to never do it again, and I will try to make it right. I think that changes a relationship.”

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