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Saying We’re Sorry
Days of Awe spark need to ask forgiveness of others and ourselves.
Only in 1970s pop psychology and silver-screen tearjerkers does love mean never having to say you’re sorry. If you’re Jewish, at least once a year, you gotta say you’re sorry. To friends, to loved ones, to anyone whom you have wronged.
Distinct among the world’s major religions, Judaism demands this yearly cheshbon hanefesh — this taking account of our souls so that we will merit being written into the Book of Life for one more year.
But how, exactly, do we pull this off? The issues and goals permeating the month leading up to the Days of Awe, as well as the 10 days themselves, are complex and challenging. We struggle to let go of anger, hurt and resentment. Facing our own transgressions, we seek to make amends; asking for forgiveness is sometimes easier than forgiving ourselves.
And where is God in all of this? How do we use this period of reflection to deepen, or initiate, a relationship? What must we do to merit Divine forgiveness? It starts with the words Erich Segal’s protagonists never had to utter. It starts with saying, “I’m sorry.”
In recent years, the “blanket request” has gained prominence. Many friends and family members find themselves saying to one another, “If I have done anything to offend you this year, please forgive me.” Some may look at this generic request as a feint, but it is nevertheless a step in the right direction.
“While the ‘blanket formula’ isn’t as full of meaning as it should be,” says Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm, “it provides an opportunity to open up the conversation. The response might be, ‘Yes, of course [I forgive you], but I really wanted to talk to you about this one thing because I am still thinking about it.’ Even if it’s formulaic, it can translate into something meaningful. No one reciting the Ahamnu (a prayer asking forgiveness for a list of transgressions) has done all of those things, but it’s a spur to get us thinking about the things that we did do.”
Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Keren Alpert says, “It is very powerful for someone to apologize to us. We might take it for granted in our homes but, especially for kids, it’s powerful when a parent admits he or she did something wrong. The prayer book says that it doesn’t come easily to the lips. I believe that. I’m not sure if it’s pride, stubbornness or the fear of being diminished if you admit a wrongdoing, but as much as words can hurt, we have to remember that they also have the power to heal. It may not be a complete healing, but we have to at least offer it.”
Apologies sometimes come unexpectedly, revealing firsthand the powerful healing that takes place when a simple “I’m sorry” enables the one asking forgiveness to lay down burdens carried perhaps for years. Recently, a former classmate approached West Bloomfield resident Bob Levine at his high school reunion to apologize for believing the worst about an interaction that took place between Levine and another school friend, which he heard about secondhand. Though Levine remembered the incident, he had left it behind, along with his mortarboard tassel and other high school memories. Not so the classmate.
“I was astonished when he approached me and apologized,” recalls Levine. “He had come from out of state to the reunion in hopes of connecting with me. For 40 years, he’d carried this guilt. I was incredibly moved by his confession and the depth with which he felt he needed to make amends.”
There is an inner cleansing and lightening of the spirit that happens when an apology is not only extended, but also accepted with grace and compassion. Rabbi Boruch Cohen, spiritual leader of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chai Center, recognizes the opportunity to be “God-like” that accepting another’s apology can bring.
“We all hope that God is a forgiving God, and therefore it is up to us to be a forgiving people. The hurts we sustain invite us to engage with God.”
Surrendering The Ego
Engaging with God also lies at the heart of what it means to be in recovery from addiction and/or alcoholism, and Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, who has worked with recovering addicts since founding the David Sobel Friendship House in West Bloomfield, draws parallels between Aloholics Anonymous’ Twelve-Step program and teshuvah (repentence). Now in charge of development and strategic planning for Friendship Circle of Michigan, Pinson is also the founder of Jewish Recovery International.
“Although teshuvah is translated as repentance,” says Pinson, “the Hebrew root comes from the Hebrew for to return, which is very similar to [the concept of] recovery. When we talk about recovery, we are saying, ‘I am going to be the person I was before I started drinking.’ The point is to return to the state of harmony when my body and my soul wanted the same thing — to be in a relationship with God.
“Torah requires us to surrender our ego and then [clear away] the barriers between us and God, similar to the first three steps in recovery, which also require a surrendering of the ego. Steps Four through 10 are the steps where I clean house, go to those whom I have hurt and ask forgiveness. The goal is to take the focus away from self-serving actions to God-serving and other-serving actions. It’s not enough to do teshuvah for the bad things we have done. One should be inteshuvah one’s whole life — developing and reinforcing one’s relationship with God, very similar to steps 10 through 12.”
Pinson has an exercise he uses with many he counsels who struggle to forgive. “We take a walk, and I have them put as many rocks as they can in their pockets. I tell them they have to walk around with these rocks, and when they realize how uncomfortable the rocks are, we begin to talk about the choice of carrying around the weight of resentment and the inability to forgive others.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean I am letting someone off the hook for hurting me. They will have to deal with why they choose to hurt others. We may think resenting them is having power over them, but it’s just the opposite. No one has power over us but a loving, kind and compassionate God. When I hold on to my resentments, I am letting a human being stand between me and God.”
Let Go Of Bitterness
Dr. David Dietrich, a psychiatrist practicing in Birmingham, knows well the prison bitterness builds and, like Pinson, underscores the idea that forgiving does not mean giving a pass to those who are hurtful.
“Forgiveness is so very important,” he says. “With our society’s emphasis on sports and the media, we don’t talk very much about [forgiveness], but it’s more important than we realize. People pay a high price for holding on to their bitterness. It’s not about forgiving and forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying abuse is OK. But it can be forgiven. It’s an organic process coming from within; there is mourning, there is confronting what was lost. When [forgiveness] happens, it can be emotionally liberating.”
Emotional liberation came to Ellen Saul [pseudonym to protect privacy] “in a quite unexpected way.” School politics led to Saul’s being twice passed over for the position of head teacher in a classroom where she had long worked as assistant teacher. Then, with enrollment dropping, her classroom was closed, leaving her unemployed for going on two years now. The job loss, coupled with the death of her mother, sent Saul into an emotional tailspin for which she sought professional help.
A recent conversation with a former colleague who also had been let go put the events into perspective.
“Forgiving was a byproduct of all the work I had been doing. My friend said she realized her family wouldn’t have the wonderful life they now had on the West Coast without all the events that led up to it. All of a sudden, my focus changed. I was able to let it all go. Just like that. I’ve started my own business, and it’s moderately successful. I know that doors will soon be opening that will be better than anything yet.”
Saul’s transformation also came about when she let go of the need to punish herself for allowing the events of the past two years to “knock [her] down to the point where she couldn’t get up again.”
As Rabbi Cohen mentioned, self-forgiveness is part of the process of teshuvah.
Dietrich offers an additional benefit of releasing the need to punish the self. “If a person can soften this tendency on their own, that is good. Through teachers, wonderful rabbis, reading, it can be done. It has a trickle-down effect. When one becomes less self-critical, one becomes more benevolent in general.”
Jews the world over will soon head to synagogue. Whether their prayers find expression in Hebrew or the lingua franca, their hearts will speak a universal plea for benevolence: s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu — pardon us, erase our sins, give us atonement.
By Debra Darvick, Special to the Jewish News