Making an Apology – Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5778

As you may know, Tamar and I have been blessed with two young and rambunctious boys. We’re at a stage now where both of them have their own distinct personalities and habits. More often than not they are getting in the way of one another. Someone is either playing with someone else’s toys, or pushing the other one out of the way. In the worst-case scenario, one of them is pushing the other and then stealing their toy. 

In our house, reconciliation has become as regular as brushing our teeth.

It’s never perfect. Judah is almost 7, and it’s taken him some time to get from the typically childish, “I’m sorry”, to something more sincere. Elijah, who is 3, just expedites the process. Instead of saying “I’m sorry”, Elijah jumps right to “apology accepted”.

Sometimes making sure that all the steps are taken care of takes longer than what actually caused the offense in the first place. And trust me there have been times when the reconciliation has gone wrong and we’ve had to apologize for that, too!

Being a rabbi and a father, it’s hard for me to ignore the chances to teach our kids about reconciliation. Rosh Hashanah carries with it the notion of teshuvah, repentance or returning to our better selves. And it demands that we adopt of a philosophy of seeking and giving forgiveness.

Yet, very little of what we will study in the Torah this season has to do with apologizing or making amends. In fact, it’s the opposite. The stories in the Torah highlight any number of ways to offend and hurt people.

This is the time of year we read about how Abraham and Sarah kicked out Hagar and Ishmael. For no other reason than Sarah’s jealousy of them?

Tomorrow we’re going to read about how Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on a mountain top at God’s request. I don’t think we’d call that a “parenting win”. It may just be reverse psychology at work.

Anyway, it’s got me wondering: Is it good parenting to make your kids say they’re sorry to other kids whom they’ve wronged?

For me, when it comes to kids, even a grudgingly muttered, “OK, sorry,” might work. Sometimes growing up is an exercise in learning to go through the motions. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say this type of apology is not from the heart. And sometimes a genuine feeling will follow once the action is instilled. Hopefully the grudging mutter will turn willing and sincere. In the long-run it seems easier than imposing a punishment for not apologizing at all.

The thing is, apologizing is hard for adults to do, too. I wonder if we could all use practice. But forcing people is not the right method. At this point, I wish to say, if I have offended anyone in our community, recently or in the past year, please let me know about it so that I can sincerely apologize and attempt to make it right between us.

In her book, Positive Discipline, Jane Nelson argues for non-punitive methods to instill valuable social skills. She says that forcing a reluctant apology does not encourage sharing. Forcing kids to apologize may actually provide a better chance of teaching kids to lie.

Nelson believes that empathy is absent when we make kids say they are sorry, when they are not. Empathy really is such a crucial element in this. It’s the channel meant for learning. Empathy fills in the gaps about what we know regarding the people we meet. And when we discover that new information, we realize how much we did not know about them in the first place. So it’s not just that we have hurt someone. It’s also about why it hurt at all.

But empathy doesn’t only require connection. It requires truth as well.

In order to show someone that we understand how they feel, we have to let them know we understand what we did. That requires an honest retelling. What we call a heshbon ha-nefesh – an accounting of the soul.

For the good and the bad.

What would be the purpose of teaching our children to lie and obfuscate the truth? Being honest should be a baseline expectation because it inherently involves telling the truth and being free of deceit. We call that integrity. I can’t think of a greater disservice to our children than teaching them that the consequences for telling the truth are more threatening than the consequences for lying.

But it’s not only about patiently encouraging our children when they make mistakes or do wrong. We also have to be the examples for our children. We must make sure to apologize to our children if we have done something wrong. And we should also let our children see us apologize to our partners and spouses.

Admittedly, this is something that I’ve had to get good at. I wish I could say that I learned how to apologize to my kids and Tamar from simple mistakes. But if you’re someone like me, who wrestles with anger and stress, when you see the worst parts of yourself reflected in the behavior of your family; it’s time to own up to your weaknesses and make it right.

According to Earnest Hemingway, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Our tradition would agree that sincere repentance always leads to change. Apologizing as a child, or an adult, is exactly how we begin the process of change. Without it what will guide us through the process?

With that in mind, we need to learn how to make a GOOD APOLOGY — one that is sincere and honest. One that gets the job done is not something many people do well.

It is well said that a good apology has three parts: I am sorry; it is my fault; what can I do to make it right?

Those three short words, “I. am. Sorry.” When they are heart-felt, they can be difficult to say. But when uttered, they can change lives.

Let’s also be honest. Conditional apologies, such as: “I’m sorry if you were offended, what’s wrong with you?” – do not work well. They are the Jiu-Jitsu of apologies.

In the same effort towards honesty, the editors at Oxford Dictionaries recently added an entry for “non-apology”. They define it as a statement that takes the form of an apology but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge responsibility or regret.

This is the type of apology we see most often in the public sphere. Celebrities and politicians make apologies all the time for doing the wrong thing. Comedian and talk show host, Bill Maher, was called out earlier this year when he used the “N-word” during one of his broadcasts. He apologized during the following show to a mostly all black panel.

When he apologized, he said, “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.” That drew an applause.

But during the rest of the conversation he added, “Comedians are a special kind of monkey.” –offering an excuse for his behavior, as if he gets a pass for racist language because of his sense of humor. Others would call a diversion, and not atonement.

It is my fault. No excuses. No blame. Psychologist Carl Jung insightfully said, “The only person I cannot help is one who blames others.”  When we accept fault, we have the power to do something about it.When we pass the blame, we are helpless to keep it from happening again.

What can I do to make it right? Unless we change something, nothing changes. A good apology is followed by action. Otherwise, it is only words. Past research has shown that a key part of a successful apology is assuring the victim that the bad behavior won’t happen again.

If you are going to apologize, apologize well. Never ruin your apology with an excuse and back it up with action.

But if you’re a person who apologizes a lot, you may want to consider how effective that is. Apologies have a law of diminishing returns. Overdoing it can make each individual apology feel less sincere. If you apologize too frequently to someone, it becomes background noise.

Women have often been unfairly stereotyped as being too apologetic.

The author Sloane Crosley, suggests that all those apologies are really tiny acts of revolt. They are, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. And they are employed when a situation is clearly not the woman’s fault.

Crosley suggest, when a woman opens her window at 3 a.m., on a weeknight and shouts to her neighbor, “I’m sorry, but can you turn the music down?” the “sorry” is not an attempt at unobtrusiveness. It’s not even good manners. Crosly says, “It’s a poor translation for a string of” far more real and deserving things to say.

Regardless, the apology is meant to serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing. And we’ve got to change this dynamic.

Have you ever noticed that there are times when it’s difficult for a man to apologize?  Male politicians are one thing. But I’m curious to know why it’s so tough for some men to say “I’m sorry”. It’s true that sometimes we don’t think there is anything to apologize for. Although, I wonder if the discomfort has to do with embarrassment towards expressing one’s feelings.

Men shouldn’t be let off the hook for this, and should be expected to be honest. But it might be worth seeing what’s underneath all those layers.

Learning how to make a good apology is too important to neglect. It’s part of maintaining whole and healthy relationships. And it’s something we should practice today because it’s so necessary.

Rabbi J David Blumenthal offers that sin disrupts our lives. On the human level, it distorts our relationships with other people, social institutions, and ourselves. Sin also disrupts our spiritual lives; it distorts our relationship with God and our deepest inner spiritual being. Because sin alienates us from humanity and from God, there is more than one kind of forgiveness.

When you sin against another, you incur an obligation to right the wrong you have committed. This is a debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more serious the wrong, the more serious the obligation to set it straight. This means that, if I offend someone- and trust me it happens- it is my responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters right.

Conversely, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to correct the wrong done to me.

To many of us it may feel obvious that seeking and giving forgiveness are necessary tools to maintain our lives.

But the goal of Rosh Hashanah -and the season- isn’t merely to apologize.

It’s to smack us in the face with the understanding that most of the time we go through life with our eyes clouded. The moment of wakefulness hardly ever lasts.

But what is important is both to be awakened long enough to see clearly at important moments. And to know that much of the time, we are partially asleep.

Without that knowledge, it is impossible to overcome our own stories in order to hear the stories of others. It is impossible to change course and act differently, because we can’t know what is the reality of the world.

Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Sages notes that “an ignoramus cannot be pious.” In other words–When the world is colored by our own perspective we can’t possibly know the motivations of others. In fact, we generously interpret our own actions to be logical and well-reasoned decision making because it comes from our own perspective.  In reality that thought is a post-hoc rationalization for decisions which were actually made by habit or impulse.

Here is a perfectly human experience for you: I’m driving on the 210 and I’m late for something. When someone cuts me off in traffic, they’re a jerk; when I cut them off, I’m in a legitimate hurry, and I say something like, “So sorry, but it’s necessary”. How can we be truly infused with religion if we are incapable of seeing that our experience in the world is only partial.

This season is replete with people sending each other messages of trivial apology and forgiveness – “If I have done you wrong, please forgive me…” “Why not!” But perhaps some years we should live in our sin for a while.

Maybe it would be worthwhile saying, “If only I hadn’t….” or insisting that some wrongs cannot just be glossed over.

There is a lot of discussion these days of microaggressions and triggers.

“Brush it off!”, “Grow up!!” or “Grow a thicker skin!” are all popular tropes.

But perhaps what we really need is a thinner skin, and more attention to the small things that do harm. Instead of brushing off, maybe we should grab them and wave them around a bit. Maybe those tiny barbs are actually the building blocks for larger wrongs, the way that they hook on to those with less power. Maybe a wronged person shouldn’t be so ready to forget and move on, and maybe we shouldn’t ask them to.

Perhaps that’s really the crux of it. When you go to apologize, you should only expect to apologize. You can’t expect to be forgiven or to reconcile- at least not immediately. And maybe never. Nonetheless, you go an apologize because you have hurt someone.

May we all find the strength and the ability to apologize, and really mean it, to the people we’ve hurt.

Shana tovah.