Kol Nidre 5780: Apologies, Good and Bad
In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I have a confession to make. About two years ago, I was preparing for my wedding and had to assemble my wedding party. I had always intended to include my sister. We had spoken about it generally, but I never asked her in so many words to take on this honor. I did ask the few other people in the party. Then, I told Daniel to send an email to the whole group, including my sister, with logistics about what we needed them to do.
My sister was understandably upset. Because of my carelessness, I had denied her, and me, the once-in-a-lifetime moment of my asking and her enthusiastically accepting. My sister lives far away and we do not see each other that often. I acted like I was taking her for granted, and that our relationship did not matter.
My sister pointed out my mistake and explained how hurt she felt by my sloppiness. I had a chance to make a nice moment for the two of us, and I blew it. I apologized for my oversight and for making her feel overlooked. I reassured her that she was valued and wanted. My sister forgave me and the wedding itself was a beautiful celebration in which she played an important part. In the time since, I’ve tried to do a better job staying in touch and maintaining our relationship despite the distance. And I’ve learned the importance of finding and celebrating opportunities to confer honor onto the important people in my life.
Yom Kippur, and this whole season of repentance, is a time of apologies. It is a time for serious self-accounting of our actions in the past year and for making amends with those we have harmed. Some people have a custom of making blanket apologies this time of year, apologizing to everyone they know in case they had harmed them in the past year.
While I respect the sentiment behind such a custom, it seems too simplistic to me. Real apologies are specific. They acknowledge the particular harm done to a particular person. They take responsibility for wrongdoing without qualification. They express remorse and show what is changing to prevent the harm from happening again.
Yes, this is a high bar. Examples of good apologies are difficult to find. In a moment when social norms are rapidly changing, we have seen many public figures apologize poorly when their hurtful behavior comes to light. This situation inspired the feminist playwright Eve Ensler to write her provocative book The Apology.
Ensler has dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights and to creating art that allows women to tell the kinds of stories that all too often are silenced. But there was one story she had hesitated to tell: the ways that her long-dead father had abused her in every manner possible as a child and young woman. Their relationship never healed, and her father died without any expression of remorse whatsoever.
Now, decades later, Ensler was tired of waiting for the apology that she never received and never would. She was tired of feeling nothing but rage about her father. She was finally ready, after decades, to open herself up to the piece of him that lived on inside of her. So, she realized that she would have to write the apology she needed to hear. She would, to the extent possible, conjure up her dead father in her head and try to understand how he could have harmed her so.
She needed this apology for her own healing. And she also wanted to offer it to the world as an example of a genuine apology. As Ensler explained in an interview, a real apology is “where you detail an account of the harms you have done and the actions you have taken, where you go inside the feelings, the heart, the body of your victim to try to experience what she felt, where you take full accountability for your actions, and you evidence… [that] you could not possibly do that act again.”
Ensler’s book offers precisely that. Through some mysterious, trance-like process that Ensler herself cannot fully explain, through some combination of memory, imagination, and empathy, Ensler was able to find her father’s voice within her. She was able to unpack the influences that made her father the deeply flawed man that he was, to understand what he did, without excusing it.
For Ensler, the most healing aspect of this exercise was having her father, at least in some spiritual way, admit what he had done and that it was wrong. As Ensler explained, “An apology is a remembering. What occurred did occur. And so, by doing that, we are actually reattaching the pieces of our own histories into a healing kind of cloth.”
This healing, this re-integration, felt profoundly moving. As she puts it, “something in your body, in your psychology, in your spirit releases, because that person has gone thoroughly and deeply and authentically into themselves to become vulnerable to you, to become equal to you, to become connected to you again.” Such is the potential for restoration that a well-done apology bears.
While she does offer workshops to help others write the apologies they need to hear, Ensler is also the first to say that this exercise is not for everyone. It would not have been for her just a few years before she did it. But at least in her case, she found this kind of imagined apology a profound step toward healing from what had happened to her.
As profound an experience as this was for Ensler, as much as it models a good apology, even this is not a real example of a well-done apology. The person apologizing is long dead. Such is the difficulty of finding the kind of humbling, vulnerable apology in the real world that Ensler attempted to model in her book.
What, by contrast, makes an apology bad? The journalist Marjorie Ingall runs a blog called Sorry Watch, in which she and a colleague catalogue and analyze public apologies. She has found that most public apologies fall short of actually taking responsibility . Bad apologizers say they are sorry if someone was hurt, rather than acknowledging that someone was in fact hurt. Or they say sorry but, and then proceed to make excuses for their behavior. Or they use the passive voice to paper over responsibility. Overall, bad apologies, Ingall has found, are “cagey, ungenerous, grudging attempts to avoid taking full responsibility for whatever you’re putatively apologizing for…sinning is easy; apologizing is hard.” Ingall herself has had to work to make sure her own apologies meet the standards she holds on her blog.
Good apologies, however, are not complicated. They are just hard. The Jewish sage Maimonides laid out the steps of a good apology in his Laws of Repentance. Those who have harmed another must make a specific accounting of the harm done and express remorse. They must make restitution to the extent possible. And they must demonstrate that some personal work has been done that will prevent similar behavior in the future.
When done well, apologies can have a transformational impact. By relieving stress, apologies improve the blood pressure and heart rate of both the apologizer and the recipient of the apology. More importantly, though, apologies can dramatically improve mental health. The psychologist Beverly Engel writes of being estranged from her mother for several years, when one day she got a call from her mother. “I’m sorry,” her mother said, in a way that indicated she really meant it. Engel describes her reaction: “Waves of relief washed over me. Resentment, fear and anger drained out. Much to my surprise, those two simple words seemed to wipe away years of pain and bitterness. They were the words I had been waiting to hear most of my life. ”
Perhaps the most impactful apology in the Jewish canon is that of Judah. As you may recall, Judah had wronged his daughter-in-law Tamar by not letting her marry his youngest son after the deaths of her two previous husbands, who were also Judah’s two older sons. Custom dictated that in such a situation, the next son would marry the daughter-in-law, in order to bear a child who would continue the family name and inheritance. Tamar takes matters into her own hands, and through a convoluted scheme, forces Judah to acknowledge his error. “She is more right than I,” Judah declares, “inasmuch as I did not give her to my [third] son” (Genesis 38:26).
This experience seems to have profoundly impacted Judah. Later on, the brothers go to Egypt, begging for grain from the man they do not yet know is actually their brother Joseph. Joseph frames the youngest brother Benjamin for theft. He then says they could go back to Canaan with grain, so long as they leave Benjamin behind forever.
Joseph seems to do this in order to see how the brothers would respond. And I do not think that it is a coincidence that Judah, of all the brothers, rises to appeal on Benjamin’s behalf. Judah learned his lesson. Judah learned that he could not abandon Benjamin the way he had abandoned Tamar, waiting to re-marry into the family, and the way he had abandoned Joseph, waiting to be rescued from the pit. So Judah speaks up, with an emotional appeal for mercy, offering himself in Benjamin’s place. Satisfied that the brothers, or at least Judah, are different people than the ones who had cast him into a pit all those years before, Joseph drops the ruse and reveals himself to his brothers.
Judah’s apology to Tamar, then, spilled out into other areas of his life. Joseph could tell that Judah had become a more responsible version of himself. Judah’s apology did not only mollify the person he had wronged. His apology also helped him to grow into a better version of himself. Such is the power of an apology.
How do apologies look from the other direction, from the perspective of the person owed an apology? Many of us, perhaps, feel that we are owed an apology. We can grow impatient waiting for one. Conversely, we might be offered token apologies, yet the problematic behavior continues.
Let me be clear. Judaism does not see forgiveness as something to be given cheaply and easily. Interpersonal forgiveness is earned. We are under no obligation to forgive unless or until we are satisfied that the person truly feels remorse and has begun to change their ways. While forgiveness is a virtue, so is justice.
It is reported about one Talmudic sage that when he had a complaint against a person who insulted him, he would pace back and forth before him and present himself, so that the person could come and appease him (Yoma 87a). In other words, this sage would subtly indicate that he was hurt and provide an opportunity for apology and reconciliation. Perhaps we could follow this model for when we are owed an apology. We can find a way to subtly make people aware of the impact of their behavior that they may not have realized, and create an opportunity for resolution.
Yet even with the best apology, forgiveness may seem too difficult. We might be in a situation when no words can undo the harm that was caused. What then?
The therapist and writer Lori Gottlieb tells the story of her client named Dave, who had a problematic relationship with his abusive father. As his father was dying, his father turned to Dave and said, unprompted, “I wish I’d treated you better. I was a prick.”
Dave was furious. Did his father expect absolution now? Did he deserve forgiveness now that it was too late to form a better relationship? Dave blurted out, “I don’t forgive you.” He did not want to pretend to a forgiveness that he did not feel. Yet he regretted his blunt words the moment they left his lips. He began to stammer his regret, when his father interrupted him: “I understand. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive me either.”
In a way, that was his father’s apology, his way of saying: I know what I did to you and can imagine how you must feel about it. At that moment, Dave told his therapist, the strangest thing happened. He felt something shift within him and felt, for the first time, not forgiveness, but compassion. In response to this moment of vulnerability, Dave felt compassion for the “sad dying man who must have had his own pain. ” This compassion allowed Dave to speak with authenticity at his father’s funeral about their difficult relationship.
So, perhaps when an apology and forgiveness are not possible, compassion might be. This does not mean ignoring bad or abusive behavior. Rather, compassion means not defining people by the worst things they have ever done. It means seeing others in the fullness of who they are. It means doing the self-accounting necessary to take responsibility for our own share of the problem. We can insist that bad actors take responsibility for their misdeeds, while holding on to the possibility, however remote, that the relationship might one day be restored.
Apologies are difficult to do well. Forgiveness takes time and effort. The gift of this season, and this day we have now entered, is time. Yom Kippur offers us a set time to set aside all of our usual distractions, in order to focus on the apologies we owe and are owed. It is a time to get right with others so that we can get right with God. It is a time to recommit to becoming the best versions of ourselves.
If we do that, if we let Yom Kippur work its cleansing power, we might find the compassion that Dave found, or the healing that Eve Ensler found, or the forgiveness that I found.
G’mar hatimah tova—may we all be inscribed and sealed b’sefer hayim tovim, in the Book of Lives Well Lived.