You probably know this exchange well: A friend or relative, one you might not even have spoken to for the better part of the year, calls on Erev Yom Kippur to wish you a G’mar Chatimah Tovah, and then asks the inevitable question—“Are you mochel me?” (loosely translated “Do you forgive me?”).
In the spirit of mercy and on pain of being cast as hard-hearted, you answer affirmatively.
Most striking about this all-too-common request for absolution is that it is made without reference to any particular infraction. Indeed, it’s usually followed by “for anything I may have done to hurt you” or “in case I did anything that hurt you.” The request is meant as a forgiveness catchall, absent the hard work of soul-searching or any of the requisite steps of teshuva. It fails to capture even the very first step of the teshuva process—articulating the sin for which one seeks forgiveness. In other words, the need to engage in self-reflection and admit where one fell short.
If we would take this same approach to repentance for our sins against G-d, Yom Kippur would accomplish nothing—neither cleansing our souls nor wiping clean our slates.
Besides being woefully inadequate halachically and morally threadbare, these general mechilah requests are problematic for another reason: They shift the onus to the person being asked, who may have been truly hurt or wronged by the person asking for forgiveness. If the latter has yet to sincerely apologize or make amends, he or she has no right to demand absolution.
This habitual Erev Yom Kippur ritual has always rubbed me the wrong way, even as I myself performed it. But after a year in which I experienced deep hurt which was never owned up to, I realize more acutely how misguided the practice really is—capable of easily causing more pain to a person one has already wronged, knowingly or otherwise.
We should all think long and hard about the events of the past year and consider if there is anyone to whom we still owe an apology. To those individuals, we should express our sincere regret and humbly ask for forgiveness.
To everyone else, let’s extend our wishes for a G’mar Chatimah Tovah and other blessings for the New Year, and then leave it at that—not put them on the spot with a demand for blanket absolution.
Forgiveness is not a coin to be tossed back and forth, but rather the dividend of true teshuva.