Yom Kippur 5781 ~ September 2020
As Canadians, we are known for a few things.
- Justin Trudeau’s socks
- Bagged milk
- Saying 'Eh'
- And saying I’m sorry
Apologizing is hard. We have to be really vulnerable when we do it. It is a little scary. It is not fun. And there is always the chance that our apology won’t be accepted.
To illustrate, there is a ẖasidic story about a king who fought with his son. In a fit of rage, the King banished his son from the kingdom. Over time, the king’s heart softened and he changed his mind. The King realized that being angry was not healthy. So, the King sent messengers to find his son to ask him to return to the palace. When the messengers found the young man, he said he would not return. He had been too hurt. His heart still harboured bitterness. With their heads down, the messengers returned the sad news to the king.
Not willing to give up, the king tried again. He sent another set of messengers to his son with a new message. Return as far as you can, and I will come to you and meet you the rest of the way.
That is the way the story ends, as I heard it. In my mind, I envision a big Hollywood ending with a reunion and a royal father-son fishing trip. So let’s stick with that, and the belief that the King’s second attempt worked.
The story includes all four components of teshuvah, understanding of repentance, as outlined by Maimonides, the Rambam, in HilHẖot Teshuvah.
First, Rambam teaches us that a person must verbally confess their mistakes. The King met his son halfway and they spoke. There were no messengers to say, “Your highness, the King is done being upset. All is forgiven.” The King said the words himself.
If we are physically able to speak, it is not teshuvah if we say sorry via text/Whatsapp/email/Facebook Messenger or Instagram. That can be a start. You can write to someone that you hurt, “can we talk?” Or, “I am going to call you, please don’t hang up. I would like to apologize.” But we need to say the words, not write, type or text them. Hopefully it goes without saying that it is not real teshuvah if you scribble the words I’m Sorry on a post-it.
Rambam also writes that we need to feel remorse and resolve not to make the same mistake again. In his words, “It is essential…that which he concluded in his heart shall be formed in speech.” True teshuvah occurs when the words in our hearts mirror the words that come out of our mouths. In our tale, the King felt remorse. That is the second step of true teshuvah.
The King actively left the palace to meet his son halfway. That was a big deal for the King.
Think of any story you have read regarding a royal. There is so much protocol involved in how they do everything. There is etiquette and there are rules for how to sit, how to dress, and how to properly hold a cup of tea. Yet here, the king said “to heck with it all” and moved his royal behind to meet his son. If it were you and me, it would not be such a big deal. But for the king, it was huge. He was literally and metaphorically lowering himself.
The Rambam’s third step is to right the wrong. The King did that as well. At the beginning he banished his son. In the end he brought him home. Effort was required. We learn from this that if you break or ruin something tangible and it is possible, mend or buy a new one. Don’t just say “I’m sorry”. If you post an unflattering photo of someone, in addition to verbally saying sorry, take the picture down. Delete it.
Rambam also instructs us that we are obliged to appease the hurt party and implore them until they can offer forgiveness. We have to do a little bit more than just be Canadian and say I’m sorry.
And Rambam’s fourth step is that once we have apologized for something, we need to ensure that we will act differently if the same situation happens again.
This is how I imagine the story ending. There are a few father-son therapy sessions. They speak about anger management and the royal hereditary stubborn streak, and of utmost importance, the king vows never to kick the prince out again. The opposite of banishing is bringing home.
Because these are the Ten Days of Repentance, we often think that now is the only time of year to apologize. That is not quite right. The work we do today on Yom Kippur only atones for what is between us and God. Today is about our thoughts and what we do in secret that only God knows. There are 364 other days to tend to interpersonal issues. We can, and should, try to say I am sorry all year long. “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There are more than a few of us who still have one or two people we know we should have called this past week. I get it. Sometimes it is so hard to say I’m sorry.
In this time of anxiety and unknowns, apologizing has never been more important. Our lives would be easier if long-lasting feuds ended now. We have so many other things to deal with. Why carry these sorts of burdens? The stress that sour relationships hold over us are not healthy or helpful.
I first heard the story of the king and his son on Dr.Brené Brown’s "Unlocking Us" podcast. Her guest was Dr. Harriet Lerner, author of Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurt”. Dr. Lerner’s wisdom marries so beautifully with Rambam.
She shares both in her podcast and her book that a heartfelt apology can lead to three important gifts.
The first is a gift to the person we hurt. It allows them to feel safe and comfortable in the relationship. It enables leftover resentment, anger and bitterness to fade away. It makes the hurt party feel validated and heard.
Dr. Lerner shares that the second gift is less obvious. This is a gift for the self. Even if we feel small and vulnerable when we apologize, even if we feel scared that the other person will not accept our apology, it is a gift to the self because it leads to growth. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves objectively, which we so seldom take the time to do.
The third gift of a real apology is a gift to the relationship. A good apology can heal our relationships, because they show our loved ones that “we’re capable of reflecting on our behaviour, and that we’ll listen to their feelings and do our best to set things right” (Lerner 175-6).
In a Forbes interview, Dr. Lerner said: “‘I’m sorry’ are the two most important words in the English language. Without the possibility of restoring trust and mending broken fences, the inherently flawed experience of being human would feel impossibly tragic. A good apology is deeply healing, while an absent or bad one can compromise and even end a relationship.”
Raise your hand if you like uncomfortable situations.
Who likes being wrong?
None of us. But we get in these situations. The most righteous and perfect among us have been wrong on occasion. When that happens, we need to own it and apologize.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg writes: There is a particular Hebrew word that refers to the contemplation of something that didn’t happen but could have happened. The word is ‘lulei’, and it means ‘were it not for’. As in: if it weren’t for our unwise decision, we would all have been better off today.
As we begin a new year, let us not carry around burdens of regret, with lulei after lulei, with if only I hads, and if only I had nots. Instead, let us commit to reaching out to those we have wronged and say we are sorry. We cannot change the past, but we sure can create a brighter future. As Leon Uris said: “The ability of a person to atone has always been the most remarkable of human features.”
In today’s Yom Kippur liturgy, we cry to God over and over again: slach lanu, mkhal lanu, kaper lanu. Forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.
Why don't we try using these words with the people we have wronged as well?
G'mar H̱atimah Tovah.