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Jewish Journal

True paths to Teshuvah

Destination requires a journey of actions, not just words

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

September 8, 2010 | 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.

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