Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 1 October 2022
How many times every day do we say we are sorry? Most of us in the room are British – so probably quite a lot.
How many times when one child wrongs another or misbehaves do we adults expect them to say sorry. To those in the room who are still closer to childhood than adulthood – how many times have you simply been expected to apologise – to say I’m sorry – and to do nothing else.
In preparation for Yom Kippur next week, I have been reading a new book by Danya Ruttenberg, Repentance and Repair, in which she refers to a popular modern apology – the non-apology that usually says something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry that you feel hurt by this perfectly reasonable thing that I did.’
While the day of Yom Kippur provides an opportunity for atonement for sins between human beings and God, we are expected to have sought forgiveness of other people in advance – particularly in these ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But so often the attempt to say sorry can end up with a non-apology. Even those of us who think we are quite good at apologising can slip up very easily.
In which the author lists the ways in which we can so easily ruin an apology and turn it into a non-apology:
- Raising our ‘but’ consciousness
When we say I’m sorry, but everyone knows there is a ‘but’ coming
- ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’
Putting the responsibility for the effects of our actions onto the victims
- The mystifying apology
Where neither we nor the person we are speaking to are quite sure what we apologising for
- ‘Please forgive Me’
Where our principle desire and aim is simply to gain instant forgiveness rather than showing that we are sorry for what we did.
- The intrusive apology
Apologising to someone who really does not want to hear from us at all.
So, it is easy to turn an apology into a non-apology. But I think it is possible that we put too much emphasis on apologising in the first place.
Our Jewish tradition expects rather more than simply saying sorry.
Yes, we want children to know to say sorry, but more importantly, we want them to mean it – we want them to really be sorry, and that means helping them to learn from their moral missteps. As the author Emily Aronoff Teck writes, ‘Making amends, learning from our mistakes, and trying to right the wrongs we have committed are abilities well within the capabilities of our little ones’, Teck argues, and they can be encouraged to do this without saying sorry.
Teck observes that, if we watch small children (and resist intervening) actually they do have instinctual mechanisms to redress the grievances of those around them. Perhaps a conclusion we might draw from Teck’s argument, is that really being sorry – making amends and learning from our mistakes – is a human instinct that we lose if we become accustomed to simply saying ‘I’m sorry’ all the time. When it becomes automatic, it starts to lose its moral power.
It’s not enough to say ‘I’m sorry’ – for those modern Hebrew speakers in the room, Judaism does not require hitnatzlut, but t’shuvah. Hitnatzlut is apologising – saying sorry – asking for forgiveness. T’shuvah is repentance – turning away from our worse selves and not only resolving to be better people, but being better people. Hitnatzlut is something we do for ourselves. It gives us peace of mind, and reassures us that we can continue to go on as before. T’shuvah is something we do both for ourselves and for others. It requires change, turning towards a different way of being in the world.
For those of you whose parents may still expect you to say sorry, I don’t want you to think that the rabbi is telling you that you don’t need to apologize for things you do that hurt others. But it does mean that saying sorry can only really be the beginning of a process of repentance, which means so much more – it means that, when we are next faced with the opportunity to do the same mean, disrespectful, or damaging thing, this time we choose to follow a different course of action.
The famous rabbi Avraham Kook argued that t’shuvah is not about becoming a new person, but about returning to our own true selves. This journey is challenging and full of perils, but we hope (we know) that the destination is worth it, if it means that we end up living fuller and more meaningful lives.
There is something comforting as well as challenging about the demand of t’shuvah rather than hitnatzlut – turning, rather than apologizing. Although it may sometimes be too late to say ‘I’m sorry’ and receive forgiveness, it’s never too late to change our own ways; to turn away from the things that we do not want to continue and to build ourselves anew. In the words of Rav Kook:
‘Even if a person consistently stumbles, damaging their righteousness and ethical behavior, this does not damage their fundamental perfection. A person’s fundamental perfection is found in their longing and desire to achieve perfection, a desire which is the foundation of t’shuvah, and which continually governs their path in life.
Let us hold onto that thought, and hope that beyond all the self-recriminations of these ten days, let us find the ability to apologise with the ‘but’, so that we may all find a positive way to move forward into the new year.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah