Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Al Cheyt

We teach our children very early on that they are fallible creatures; that mistakes are a part of our lives and that with the appropriate amount of remorse we can repair the errors of our ways. In other words, we teach our children the art of the apology. It is never easy. Try playing mediator between two young boys in the backseat, both convinced that the other took his video game, all the while attempting to keep your hands on the steering wheel so that the family fate isn't as roadkill. When they are young, our kids have to be instructed and prodded into apologizing.

"Tell Younger Son that you are sorry that you bit his toes," said I on one memorable occasion.

"Tell Older Son that you are very sorry that you slammed the bedroom door in his face."

This concept of repentance seems so straightforward when we are young. A simple "I'm sorry" seems to do the trick. We apologize, it is accepted and we move on. As our kids age, we hope as parents that we have instilled enough of a moral code so that the prodding comes from within them, and the apology becomes all the more sincere because the error is recognized by the perpetrator. In other words, an apology is of very little use and carries very little weight when one has to be told to apologize.

I have been thinking a great deal over the last few weeks about this concept of teshuva. (repentance) Obviously, the calendar has a great deal to with that. We Jews enter into this time of year hoping for a clean slate. We strive, and most often struggle, to get our repenting houses in spiritual order so that we might enter into the new year with clear consciences that allow us to face our God and ourselves with humility. But, I am struck by a nagging paradox. How sincere is any teshuva that comes as a result of the  annual clock? Does the fact that the Yamim Noraim are on our doorstep inspire the apology, and doesn't that make the apology less worthy?

At this time of year I receive many letters, blog posts and emails. The general theme is one of asking for overall forgiveness. "If I have wronged you in anyway or said anything that was hurtful...." While the sentiment is there and I am certain mostly sincere from the authors, it does always seem a bit too easy, a bit too pat. The governing principle of forgiveness on Yom Kippur is this: for sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones. But for sins against human beings, the Day of Atonement does not atone-until the sinner has sincerely sought forgiveness from the aggrieved party. But what of timeliness? If I wrong someone in February, is it ok to send out a letter in August begging general forgiveness as opposed to apologizing in person for the specific act right away? As a parent, I wouldn't have allowed this behaviour in my children. These half-hearted attempts at teshuva are extremely difficult for me. In Judaism, forgiveness is available only to those who repent, and are willing to face the consequences of their actions. How is that found in an email?

The paradox continues for me. If it is our obligation to apologize and seek forgiveness, must we forgive just because an apology has been offered? Maimonides said: "We should be slow to anger and easily appeased. And when our forgiveness is requested, we should grant it with a whole heart and a willing spirit; we should not be vengeful or bear grudges even for a grave injury."

"This," he said, "is the way of the upright Jew."

But, what if that apology is insincere, ill-timed and halfhearted? It seems the height of self-importance for an individual to ask of God on Yom Kippur "Forgive us the sins we have committed against You," when there are those among us that we refuse to forgive. But, it needs to be acknowledged that the form the apology takes is often just as important as the apology itself, otherwise grudges are borne and ill-will fostered. How do we reconcile this problem? How do we move forward when we know that we are either apologizing or forgiving out of duty, rather than true remorse?

It seems to me that forgiveness should always be granted when true remorse is expressed. My problem is that I am terribly human and I view with tremendous suspicion, those apologies that are given with less than true sincerity. I wish I could be more like the RamBam. He understood forgiveness on a level that is still unattainable to me. I am working on it, though. I hope that the new year will afford me the opportunity to be more open to all those who seek my forgiveness, no matter the transgression, and I hope that when I am in the wrong, I will have the strength and courage of conviction to step up and apologize in a sincere and timely manner. As it states in our liturgy:

"Help me then, O God; help me always, but especially now on this sacred Day of Atonement; help me to banish from myself whatever is mean, ugly, callous, cruel, stubborn, or otherwise unworthy of a being created in Your image. Purify me, revive me, uplift me. Forgive my past, and lead me into the future, resolved to be Your servant."

Shana Tova u'metukah!


  1. I don't believe the timeliness of an apology is necessarily relevant. Often the Yamim Noraim gives us a chance to reflect upon events in our past that we may not have realized were hurtful to others. Surely, a sincere apology can come well after the fact, especially if we didn't even realize the impact of our actions at the time.

    As far as sincerity, it is difficult to know if someone is genuinely sorry. In most cases I would not presume otherwise and feel that I must grant forgiveness. One possible test, however, is whether the actions are repeated after an apology. If someone apologizes to me and immediately repeats the transgression, I cannot accept the apology as sincere.

  2. On the sincerity piece I wonder what it is tht we are supposed to do around forgiving those who haven't asked for forgiveness? I welcome your thoughts.


  3. Elaine,
    You pose an interesting dilemma and one that is somewhat at the core of this post. The Judaic answer is straightforward, I believe. If one does not seek forgiveness then teshuva cannot be granted and the gates of repentance remain closed. It is only through teshuva that forgiveness can be granted. The more personal answer is more complicated, of course. If someone has not asked for forgiveness there could be several reasons why. Maybe they truly believe they have done nothing that demands forgiveness. Maybe they lack courage and conviction. It is very difficult to admit one's mistakes. Maybe there is a stubborn nature that simply cannot be overcome. I guess the answer to your question lies within you rather than within them. If you can forgive and put away the transgression (depending on the nature of the sin) it probably serves better in the long run. We would all be healthier if we forgave rather than carry grudges. But, I am not naive. I know that there is always something that seems beyond forgiveness. I guess that is in the eye of the individual. Not a great answer, perhaps but the best I have to offer on short notice. Shana Tova