The High Holidays afford time for self-reflection, forgiveness and improved relations with others, but often people struggle with saying “sorry”.
The Jewish High Holidays and particularly Yom Kippur provide an opportunity to reflect on the year and look more deeply into any actions that might have brought pain to others.
Engaging in acts of prayer, charity and repentance (also referred to as teshuvah) serve as atonement for sins against God, according to Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek of Southfield.
“However, when one person mistreats another, one must directly and actively seek forgiveness from the person wronged,” he said. “On Yom Kippur, especially, we are to be reminded that how we treat others — individually, communally and nationally — and especially how we treat those in need, are of greatest importance to God.
“As such, practicing atonement, especially with regard to our interpersonal relationships, is the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur holiday.”
“Sorry,” however, can be one of the hardest words to say. If the misdeed or hurt is large enough, or if the person wronged has special importance to us, it’s incumbent that the interaction happen face-to-face, according to some rabbis. This entails acknowledging the misdeed, requesting forgiveness and vowing not to repeat the hurtful behavior.
“It’s important in today’s day and age that we go to people and say we’re sorry for what we’ve done,” said Rabbi Josh Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. “There is a concept in Judaism that we are assessing ourselves” during the High Holidays.
“We are trying to determine whether we ‘hit the mark.’ We all need a moment to reflect and determine if our actions make us proud,” he added.
Starr says that people realize they have the power to bring about peace between themselves and someone whom they have wronged.
“By asking forgiveness and granting forgiveness, we can take steps toward achieving the peace we so desperately desire. We can also alleviate for ourselves the burden of carrying the weight of anger and even, God forbid, hatred,” Starr said.
Atoning for sins is an exercise in exposing one’s vulnerabilities, having the humility to admit to wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. Bennett also describes the 1,000-year-old Jewish practice of mussar, or “balancing our soul traits,” with the aim of living meaningfully and ethically to prevent acting in hurtful ways.
Mussar is a spiritual practice that focuses on mindfulness and incorporates daily practices such as a mantra read aloud or chanted in the morning to frame the day, a mindful action performed during the day and then journaling at night.
“When we are in balance, humans and the natural world work better,” he said.
Guilt over the wrongdoing can hold us back from productive communication with people, Starr adds, but teshuvah can alleviate feelings that keep us stuck.
“When we seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness, as long as it’s done in a healthy way, it’s a tremendous burden that’s lifted.”
So how do you apologize to a person you’ve wronged so that healing can begin? Some therapists advise practicing the apology on a neutral party first.
“It’s about creating boundaries and knowing the time and place to have that conversation,” said Ronit Weinmann, LMSW, manager of clinical services at Henry Ford Kingswood Hospital in Ferndale and a therapist in private practice in Berkley.
“Where would be a good place to have that conversation? We work with a lot of framing on what that conversation will look like and role play,” she said.
The person asking for forgiveness should be sensitive to the feelings of the wronged person, Starr says, and make sure not to embarrass him or her.
When approached with humility, compassion and a sincere desire for forgiveness, teshuvah can lead to self-growth and the potential for stronger relationships. This can improve a person’s sense of purpose as well as increased confidence and less depression, according to Dana Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Beaumont Center for Human Development in Southfield.
“It requires a lot of insight and a lot of motivation to change behaviors that bring hurt to others,” she said. “It’s about bettering ourselves. We all make mistakes … so let’s come to terms with that and move forward in a way that will promote our overall happiness.”
Cohen said that the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have special meaning to her as a Jew. “We can all benefit from taking the time to reflect on our behavior,” she said.
Weinmann added that in addition to seeking forgiveness and vowing not to repeat hurtful actions, individuals should keep their own well being in mind.
“As humans, we’re constantly striving for perfection,” she said. “Judaism has that Jewish factor of saying, ‘It’s OK to make mistakes but you need to own those mistakes’” and realize that it’s alright not to be perfect.
“It gives you time to forgive yourself,” she said. “I think we forget about our own needs. It’s equally important to take care of yourself.”