Apologizing and Forgiving: How and When

Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Day – September 22, 2007

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

For a long time, attorneys often counseled their clients not to admit wrongdoing. I’m told, though, that many lawyers have changed their thinking. For example, when medical errors were committed, physicians and hospitals were long advised not to admit the mistake. The fear was that the confession would be fodder for a lawsuit. True enough, our society is often overly litigious. However, recent studies have shown the value of admitting error. The result is a decline in medical malpractice suits. Appropriate apologies actually seem to work!

All too often, though, our apologies are woefully inadequate. A co-worker calls to our attention that we have been rude to another colleague. Upon reflection, we know we weren’t as kind as we should have been. Or perhaps we’re still caught up in whatever petty irritation led to our outburst in the first place. We go to the person whom we have harmed, and we say: “I apologize if you were offended.”

Public figures offer these pseudo-apologies frequently. They say they are sorry if someone was offended. These utterances are entirely unsatisfactory. They do not admit any wrongdoing, so no actual apology has been offered. Worse, when we say that we’re sorry that somebody else felt hurt, we apologize for another person’s feelings, not our own actions. We have failed to place the burden where it actually belongs: upon ourselves. If this sermon achieves anything, my greatest hope is that we will stop saying that we’re sorry for how somebody else feels! No circumstance whatsoever calls for those words.

Last night, before Kol Nidre, we read these words, familiar to us in verbiage and in concept: “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” Of course, this idea is not original to our own High Holy Day prayerbook. Instead, those words were composed and recorded in the Mishnah by our sages, more than 1800 years ago. Today, let us focus on the sins between people.

Relatively speaking, observing the rituals of Yom Kippur is the easy part. Oy. We have to fast. Services continue throughout the day. This yuntuf is not meant to be fun or facile. The prayers are harsh. We confess our sins. We afflict our souls; and that’s a mitzvah!

Even from biblical days, observing Yom Kippur has been considered the simplest part of obtaining atonement. In this morning’s Haftarah, the prophet rails against those who scrupulously observe the fast and all the other rituals of the Holy Day, but who continue to oppress and neglect the less fortunate. From the prophetic point of view, these sinners do not achieve repentance on Yom Kippur. We only achieve forgiveness if we actually change our ways.

The key requirement of Yom Kippur is more than prayer and fasting. We need to deal with our sins. Perhaps our most important goal today is to achieve optimal human relationships.

We know we should ask forgiveness from those we have hurt. We may also acknowledge that doing so is far more difficult, even than fasting for 25 hours and afflicting ourselves with self-accusatory prayers. We’re aware of the requirement, but we have little idea about how we should go about seeking forgiveness.

By age-old custom, many Jews will apologize at this season to everyone with whom they have had significant interactions in the last year. The idea is that, however unintentionally, we are most likely to hurt the people we see regularly. Of course, going up to everyone, apologizing if we have hurt them in the last year, is relatively easy. We aren’t admitting any specific wrongdoing. As far back as 1723, Rabbi Joseph Hahn of Frankfort feared that engaging in this rote act would lead many of us to “repudiate the essential, [which is] the forgiving and being forgiven by” the people with whom we really do have strained relationships.

The hard work is in going up to the person whom we have offended. Most of us are scared out of our wits. We avoid all confrontation, even one intended to make amends. We are also loathe to admit that we have been at fault. And yet, the commandments of Yom Kippur require us to admit the wrongs we have done and to confess them directly. We must change our ways. We must pray that our forgiveness is accepted. When we have insulted another person publicly, even more difficult work is required: We must apologize in front of those who heard our improper words.

But what do we do when somebody else thinks we’ve done something wrong, but we disagree? First, we should take some time to consider the situation, to reflect on the incident, away from the heat of the moment. If we still don’t understand how we caused the other person’s anger, we should seek out that person. We may say, “I know that our interaction left you feeling hurt. Help me understand what I did to cause that.” Perhaps that conversation will lead us to apologize. If not, at least it may generate greater understanding.

In fact, that’s what the original Mishnah requires, not that we necessarily apologize, and certainly not when we are in the right. The commandment is that we make peace with one another.

But how do we handle a situation in which somebody may demand an apology, when we feel we owe none? Not long ago, Robert and Daniel were behaving abominably one evening. Toni and I discussed the matter, and we agreed that extraordinary measures were required, specifically that I would need to speak more sternly to the children than I normally do. They both went to bed in tears. In the morning, Robert asked me to apologize for having been, and I quote, “mean.” I declined, explaining that his behavior and his brother’s, for which they had not apologized, had been responsible for my appropriate disciplinary action.

That example is good because we’ve all faced something like that, and we will again, from one side or the other. Admittedly, though, it’s a small matter, rather routine. We do get into more serious situations, accused of doing wrong, when we know we have not. In these cases, repentance is not at issue. We have to decide whether the occasion is one of those rare events in which holding the line, maintaining our innocence, is more important than salvaging the relationship. The overwhelming majority of the time, as the saying goes, we’re better off being happy than right. Sadly, though, some relationships are beyond repair.

The most difficult part of this repentance equation may be when we have been hurt, and we are asked to forgive.

We are all familiar with the Christian notion of “turning the other cheek.” We may hear our Christian friends speak of forgiving even those who have not apologized. Certainly, that’s a great religious value, however of another faith. Admittedly, too, offering forgiveness, even when it is not sought, is often psychologically healthy.

Judaism, though, focuses on forgiving those who do admit their wrongs, who do change their behavior, and who do apologize. Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon wrote the definitive volume on the laws and customs of the High Holy Days. Agnon insists that we should not forgive a person whose harmful behavior continues. Like the prophet of this morning’s Haftarah, the Mishnah teaches that Yom Kippur does not provide atonement for those who continue their wonted ways. When God does not forgive, Agnon instructs us not to grant pardon either.

But what of the truly penitent sinner? Agnon cites numerous ancient Jewish texts urging us to forgive. If we refuse, the person who has harmed us is instructed not to ask our pardon more than three times. For Agnon, we should accept another’s repentance as our part in making shalom, peace, for all humanity. Agnon reminds us that Torah instructs that the ancient Temple altar was to be constructed only of whole stones, which no metal object has touched. Metal is used to make the implements of war. The Temple must be a place of peace. In Agnon’s words, “Now, if stones that cannot hear and cannot see and cannot smell and cannot speak are saved by [Torah] from the sword, because they make peace between [people] through the sacrifices, which are offered upon them, . . . how much more is this true of [us], who can hear and see and smell and speak, when we make peace among [one another]!” Granting forgiveness where it is properly sought and deserved, making peace with one another, we do our part to bring the world to messianic redemption.

Steps toward ultimately repairing our broken world, toward tikkun olam, are our goal on this Yom Kippur. We atone for our sins, individually and collectively, for the benefit of our own souls, but so much more, for the betterment of all creation. When we sincerely apologize to those we have harmed, we help bring peace to the world. When we improve our behavior, we do our part to build a better future. When we forgive those who deserve our pardon, God is our partner.

Let us do the hard work of Yom Kippur. Then, we hope that the easy part – our prayers, our fasting, and our self-affliction – will be pleasing in the sight of our God.