In the words of Elton John, why is it that “sorry seems to be the hardest word?”
With a sense of schadenfreude, we take sport in watching our political leaders and celebrities fall from their pedestals and lie in their attempt to cover up the scandal du jour. We relish TV shows like “The Good Wife” based on character transformations of unfaithful partners and the public (and private) humiliation that comes from admitting wrongdoing.
We have the luxury of being removed from the eye of the storm and think if only they had apologized in the first place, they could have saved face/their career/relationship/reputation/life.
Of course, we know it’s not so easy to say we’re sorry. For all that I think I am emotionally evolved, I have had many an argument with my spouse, family member or colleague in which the defensive wall shoots up and nothing short of a sledgehammer can bring it down.
The reticence to admit our own mistakes starts young. I saw it as my 3-year-old struggled through his first real apology. After he hit me—something slightly more forceful than a love tap and weaker than a full-on whack—and I doled out the requisite scolding, my husband and I insisted that he articulate an apology.
With several tries and averting his big green eyes, a sheepish grin crept over his face and he stammered, “S-ahw-reee.”
His experience held up a mirror to my own. It’s hard to admit when we are wrong and sometimes even harder to take responsibility for it. My son covered his embarrassment by not looking at me squarely in the eye.
Some of us don’t look at our wrongdoings, period. We justify our actions, blame others or deny there was a problem in the first place.
Facing our inadequacies and doing teshuvah, or returning to our best selves, is exactly what we are challenged to do beginning in the month of Elul and continuing through Yom Kippur. Many of us sit in synagogue and pound our hearts reciting a litany of “al chaits” (confessions) about how we missed the mark, vowing to do better next time.
The High Holidays present us with the imperative to live every day with the same sense of moral intensity as if it were our last, as Rabbi Eliezer teaches. This is the period that makes us aware of how fragile our lives are, a time in the Jewish calendar cycle and liturgy in which we are confronted with the possibility of our own mortality.
We are jolted into an awareness of how to live our lives more fully. By taking responsibility for our actions and repairing broken relationships, we can enjoy deeper connections to others—essential ingredients to a fuller life indeed.
While most of us log our greatest number of synagogue hours during the High Holidays, we must go outside the synagogue to do the important interpersonal work of the season. The medieval philosopher Maimonides sums this up nicely regarding Yom Kippur, saying in the Laws of Repentance that “repentance (or teshuvah) and Yom Kippur atone only for sins between the person and God … but sins against other people such as injuring, cursing or stealing are never atoned for until he has paid what he owes the person and appeased him.”
Doing the work of asking for forgiveness from another person is critical. Teshuvah, however, does not happen by issuing a single apology; it is a process. For Maimonides it included three essential steps: regretting bad behavior and confessing wrongdoing; rejecting the bad behavior by not repeating it when a similar situation arises; and resolving not to do it again.
The phrase “I’m sorry” kicks off a process of profound self-transformation. In Maimonides’ book, a person who has done real teshuvah is as righteous as one can get.
Sound appealing? This High Holidays season, let it be your “year of the apology.” Make a list of one or two people you have hurt in some way. During the 10 days of repentance, which fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, make a point to reach out to them. Admit your wrong, share your regret, refrain from repeating the behavior and resolve to behave differently in the future. Most likely they will ask you for forgiveness as well.
As the Rambam says, be open to offering forgiveness, lest you turn into the sinner. Let this High Holidays season be a time for sincere apologies. It’s not just something we say, it’s something we embody.
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