Jonathan Muskat

Apology Season

We now find ourselves in apology season.  We are heading towards Yom Kippur, a day when we seek atonement for our sins, and our rabbis tell us that we can only achieve atonement for interpersonal sins if we sincerely apologize to those individuals that we have harmed (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 606:1).  The midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 15) states that the goal of Yom Kippur is to be angelic.  One characteristic of angels is that they are at peace with each other and that should be the state of all Jews on Yom Kippur.  Because we want atonement and we want to angelic, the days before Yom Kippur have become days of apology.  There are easy aspects relating to apologies and there are difficult aspects relating to apologies.

What is easy when it comes to apologies?  The generic Facebook post or WhatsApp message to a whole group of people asking everyone to forgive you is easy.  Someone asked me what I thought about these posts or messages.  I don’t think that a message or post like this would be construed as a sincere apology so I don’t think it would accomplish the halachic goals of atonement for interpersonal sins.  Is there any value to these posts or messages?  Perhaps.  If they create a climate where people will think more about sincerely apologizing to those whom they harmed, then I think it is valuable.  If by sending these posts and messages, people think that that is all that is necessary when it comes to apologizing before Yom Kippur, then they are counterproductive.

What is difficult when it comes to apologies?  I think that there are three things that are difficult and I’m not sure which of the three is most difficult.  First of all, it’s difficult to sincerely apologize in the right way.  A few years back, I was reading an article by Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT, entitled, “The Top 12 Fake Apologies – And What Makes For An Authentic Apology.” He listed the 12 most common non-apology apologies. Just to give you a taste of these non-apology apologies, I will list a few of them.  First, there is the “I am sorry if” apology, such as, “I am sorry if I did anything wrong.” This is what’s known as a conditional apology, as it suggests only that something might have happened. Second, there is the “I am sorry that” apology, such as, “I am sorry that you got hurt.” This is what’s known as the blame-shifting apology, as it places the burden on the one who is hurt and suggests that he or she is the problem. Third, there is the “I am sorry but” apology, such as “I am sorry, but other people thought it was funny.” This is what’s known as the excuse-making apology, as it essentially excuses your behavior.

It’s difficult for many of us to apologize for a number of reasons.  First, we may have low self-esteem so the admission of a mistake is too threatening for our egos to tolerate.  Additionally, often we give ourselves and not the other person the benefit of the doubt.  We tend to see ourselves and not the other person in the best possible light.  As such, in interpersonal conflicts, we often see ourselves as the wronged party when, in fact, objectively that is not the case.  Maybe this is why the Rav Moshe Isserles writes (Orach Chayim 603:1), v’yesh l’chol adam l’chapes u’l’fashfesh b’maasav v’lashuv mei’hem ba’aseret ymei teshuva v’safek averah tzarich yoter teshuvah mai’averah vadai ki yoter mitcharet k’sheyodaya she’asah mi’she’aino yodaya” “Each and every person should search himself and his deeds and return from them in repentance during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is necessary to distance ourselves more from doubtful sins than from definite sins because one typically regrets more when he knows that he did something than when he doesn’t know.”  We have to be more concerned with doubtful sins than definite sins because we often justify doubtful sins as not really being our fault and certainly this is the case with interpersonal conflicts when we will judge ourselves and not others favorably in the case of doubt.

It is very difficult to apologize sincerely, but it may be as equally difficult for some to seek out an apology in a sincere and effective manner to bring about an outcome of peace and reconciliation.  Why is it difficult?  Because it doesn’t seem fair!  The other person was nasty to me!  He should approach me and apologize to me!  I was the victim!  Why must I approach him and seek out an apology?

But this is what the Torah demands if we think that there is a possibility of reconciliation.  If someone wrongs me and does not apologize to me, then I must confront that person instead of internally harboring feelings of hatred towards that person.  When the Torah states in Parshat Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:17) that we must not hate our brother in our hearts and that we must rebuke him and not bear upon him a sin, the Ramban explains that these three directives are three parts of a singular response when someone wrongs us.  We shouldn’t hate that individual and harbor those feelings internally.  Rather, we must rebuke the individual so that he will apologize or he will repent so that we will no longer bear ill will in our heart towards him.

Additionally, when we do that, we must do so in a sensitive way, even though we are the victim!  If the goal is to bring about peace and reconciliation between yourself and someone else, then being abusive towards the other person who wronged you will not help achieve that goal even if you were very upset at that person for what he did to you.  Rather, simply approaching the other person and stating the facts and how the person’s actions made you feel without attacking the person’s character is the most effective way to bring about reconciliation.  Telling someone that “You said _______ and I felt bad because of your comments” is far more effective than telling him, “You’re a mean person.  I can’t believe you said _________.  You need to apologize because Yom Kippur is coming!”  Remember, the goal is to try to bring about peace by providing an opening for the other person to sincerely apologize.

While it might be difficult to apologize and at times it might be more difficult to approach someone and seek an apology in an effective way to promote peace and reconciliation, it may be even more difficult to be “ma’avir al midotav,” or to be someone who wipes away the hurt.  The gemara (Pesach 113b) praises someone who has this character trait, who doesn’t internalize the anger and sadness that he may feel from being harmed by another, especially if that other person doesn’t attempt to sincerely apologize to him.  We are challenged to try to see the offender through the prism of empathy and understanding of what extenuating factors might have contributed to his offense.  It may mean that I cannot have a true reconciliation with that person because he didn’t sincerely apologize and therefore any future relationship with that person may be harmful to me.  But it also means that in my heart there is no anger.  Certainly, there are times when someone may have harmed me so much so that it may be too much to expect me to feel no anger and sometimes it may take time to allow the anger subside.  However, in most situations, I am reminded of the words of the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 7:7) in explaining why we should wipe away the hurt that “hakol etzel ha’mevinim divrei hevel v’havai v’ainan kdei linkom aleihem” – “people of understanding consider all these things as vanity and emptiness which are not worth seeking revenge for.”

We now find ourselves in apology season.  Let us understand that some apologies that may seem easy may not accomplish the real goal of this season.  Let us also understand the difficulties of this season – sincerely apologizing, seeking out a sincere apology and reconciliation when we were the victim, and removing any anger towards others from our hearts.  Sometimes, the task requires almost superhuman strength and resolve, but that is exactly our task leading up to Yom Kippur.  Our task is to transcend our humanity such that we transform ourselves into angels on Yom Kippur and we truly become one community standing before God.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.