The best way to apologize (and forgive) in preparation for Yom Kippur.
It seems simple. If you have hurt another person, you ought to apologize. You also ought to try to fix what you broke. If another person hurt you, the other person ought to apologize and to offer to make things better; you have a right to ask for both the apology and the help.
To say that in Jewish terms, to repent for injuring another person, you need to express regret, to make amends and then you can ask for forgiveness. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah says that “for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not cleanse a person until he appeases the other person.” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9)
The principle seems basic, yet making amends also seems hard to do and, even if you do it well, it might not be accepted. How often does it work out simply?
This time of year, when many Jews routinely ask their acquaintances for forgiveness, does that lead to real change?
Rabbi David Fried, who taught Jewish studies at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, recalls once when speaking directly worked:
“There was a kid who would bully me every day on the bus in seventh grade. Come Yom Kippur time, he was going around asking everyone for mechilah (forgiveness) in the perfunctory way people do before Yom Kippur. I told him I’d be happy to be mochel (forgive) him as long as he stops being mean to me. Kid was never mean to me again.”
Rabbi Baruch Lazewnik, who also teaches at Frankel, tried a different technique to achieve reconciliation — he did not get amends or even an apology — but he did get reconciliation: “In high school, a fellow student owed me $7. I told him I’d be mochel him if I could come to his house and listen to (Paul Simon’s song) ‘The Boxer’ seven times. I was mochel him with all my heart after some 45 minutes of a turntable turning.”
Why did he choose that method? “Hard to say,” he explains. “I do know our actions resulted in both of us letting go of all anger and tension, i.e., ‘Where is my money?’ and ‘Can’t you wait?’”
Nehama Stampfer Glogower, a hospital chaplain based in Ann Arbor, shares several experiences with apologizing.
“It’s an icky business, this forgiveness process. Forgiveness implies error, hurt, embarrassment, regret and a whole host of feelings we typically try very hard to avoid. But I have two stories of attempted, incomplete forgiveness. In one case I sought to be forgiven, in the other I longed to hear an apology. Both remain painful memories for me, and I have learned from them,” she said.
“Many years ago, I publicly embarrassed someone. In a presentation on inter-marriage, I called her out and said that, despite our friendship, I would not invite her for a Shabbat meal because she was intermarried. It was thoughtless and stupid and caused a big stir in our small Jewish community and badly (and deservedly) damaged my reputation for many years.
“A mutual friend told me that I needed to write a note and apologize. I did so. I got a reply, which I held in my hands for a while before I got the courage to open it. She did not forgive me. Even now, 30 years later, I feel a wave of shame. I don’t blame her for not forgiving me. My shame is my continuing penance.”
Glogower shares another story: “I was hired for a (relatively) well-paid teaching position within the Detroit Jewish community in a pilot program. The woman who sought me out was someone I was friendly with. In those days, I was a little cockier than I am now, and I thought the program was going well. Apparently, the powers that be were not in agreement. I was fired by the woman who had sought me out and hired me. Worst of all, I got no explanation of what I had done wrong.
“I suspect I had been caught up in a power struggle that had very little to do with my specific actions. But, even so, to be fired without explanation was frustrating beyond description. I was angry. Not only that, but our paths would cross from time to time and each time I would relive the fury and the humiliation. A few years later another friend suggested I write a note. I did and there was no response. Let it go.”
Glogower said a few years after she wrote the note, “I attended a bar mitzvah at the Conservative congregation here in town; of course, she was there and, of course, I avoided her. But when I stopped in the bathroom after Kiddush, there she was. (By the way, a lot of interactions take place in the women’s bathroom, don’t know if that happens in the men’s room).
“We looked at one another. I froze. She looked me in the eye and opened her arms, saying “Over?”
“Over,” I responded through somewhat gritted teeth, and we embraced. Not exactly an apology, not what I needed, but it was something. She died a few years later and I was glad we had that embrace.
“So, what did I learn?” Glogower said. “Forgiveness and change are elusive and, like grief, take a very long time to process and incorporate into our life. I have learned to think just a little more before I speak and consider the effect I have on other people. The world is messy and hard and hurtful. Teshuvah (repentance) is a brave and hopeful task and, even when incomplete, it is worth something.”
Glogower further observes: “You know, I hate the impersonal broadcasts of ‘If I have offended you this past year, please forgive me.’
“The fact of the matter is that we rarely are acutely aware of how we have offended others and even more rarely seek forgiveness. The trick is greater self-awareness. My chaplaincy training was extraordinarily difficult, but one handy habit I have picked up is to constantly take my ‘emotional temperature.’
“If I can recognize when I get angry or defensive, I can usually stop myself from causing too much damage. My metaphor is that I walked around with a giant backpack and I was totally oblivious to the fact that when I moved around, I was whacking people all the time. I try to be more deliberate these days. This has also increased my capacity for compassion and pity (which are not exactly the same) toward others. Nowadays, I tell people that it is extremely difficult to offend me unless they are a blood relative. And that’s the truth!”
The Art of Apologizing
First of all, you don’t have to apologize to everyone you know, so no need to run up your cell phone bill. You’re only required to ask for forgiveness from those you know you have hurt. Some halakhic authorities recommend that you apologize to all your friends before Yom Kippur, just in case you hurt someone unknowingly (Rema 606:2; Arukh Hashulhan, 4). Doing this via a mass email or Facebook message is halachically (according to Jewish law) permissible.
If you know you’ve hurt someone, you absolutely should make an apology before Yom Kippur. You can do this in person, by phone, via email, Facebook, Skype or even telegram — whatever means you want, but it should be personal.
Everett L. Worthington Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University, a psychologist who studies forgiveness, knows what makes a good and effective apology. He has a handy acronym he uses to help people remember all the steps of a meaningful request for forgiveness:
C – Confess without excuse. Be specific about what you’re sorry for (“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary.”). Do not offer any kind of excuse. Do not let the word “but” come out of your mouth.
O – Offer an apology that gets across the idea you’re sorry and that you don’t want to do it again. Be sincere and articulate.
N – Note the other person’s pain. Acknowledge that your actions were hurtful.
F – Forever value. Explain that you value your relationship and you want to restore it more than you want to hang onto your pride.
E – Equalize. Offer retribution. Ask how you can make it up to the person.
S – Say “never again.” Promise that you won’t do it again (and mean it).
S – Seek forgiveness. Ask the other person directly, “Can you forgive me?”
Worthington suggests thinking through all the steps of CONFESS before you approach the person to deliver your