Eytan Saenger

Don’t just casually say sorry, focus on changing in the future

mark tulin / Unsplash
mark tulin / Unsplash

My bad. Sorry. That’s on me. My apologies.

I struggle to think of a day or even a mere hour where I didn’t hear or say one of these phrases, multiple times. I feel myself constantly apologizing to others or being apologized to. 

This observation, relevant in the leadup to the high holidays, is certainly not mine alone. I was recently leading a learning session at OU-JLIC(OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) at Binghamton’s thursday night mishmar and asked the question: raise your hand if you have heard, or seen in a text message, the words sorry, my bad, my apologies, by you, to you or by someone else you were passing. The hands of the around 30 people in the room all shot up. As a society, we have become accustomed to apologizing for anything and everything. A 2015 YouGov survey showed that 71% of Americans would apologize if they interrupted someone and roughly 58% would apologize for messing up a favor for a friend.  There do not appear to be signs of this changing any time soon. A further YouGov poll from April 2023 (pictured below) demonstrates that about a quarter of American adults apologize, either once or more than once per day, for something outside of their control, which rises to 42% for the youngest generational subgroup, Gen Z.

Screenshot of YouGov Survey

If many of us are apologizing so often, and even for things that we could not control, then it seems fair to ask: Are we losing the meaning of true repentance?

There are several issues with the norm of constant casual apologies. Over-apologizing, as shown in a CNBC article, can erode confidence and respect. Such apologies may lack genuineness, driven by self-interest rather than caring. A hasty apology may be more defensive than caring. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary sociobiologist, suggests these apologies align with ‘reciprocal altruism,’ where people expect favors in return. Many polite behaviors, including apologizing, can serve this purpose. We may show gratitude by getting someone a gift with the hope that they will get us a gift. Similarly, we may say sorry so that our social standing is not lowered, rather than simply showing remorse. It’s like when as a child, we apologize for disrespectful behavior with the sole purpose of avoiding punishments or regianing privileges from one’s parents. These apologies lack the depth we should aim for.

Constantly apologizing could also lessen the meaning of future apologies and their effectiveness. If we say sorry multiple times in a short span, then our previous apologies hold little significance both to ourselves and those around us.

To address the question of whether we are losing the meaning of repentance, it is helpful to examine the origins of the meaning of this concept in Judaism and beyond. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary states as follows regarding the history of the word apology: The word’s earliest meaning in English was “something said or written in defense or justification of what appears to others to be wrong.” The etymology of an apology is in line with a “casual apology”. People are likely to apologize quickly as a defense mechanism to prevent themselves from getting in trouble.  

In the Torah, we see terminology commonly used in the lead-up to the high holidays. In Moses’s farewell address towards the end of the book of Devarim, he speaks to the people about the need to follow God’s ways and what the future could look like for the Jews. He then discusses their ability to repent if they do wrong and says the following: 

 וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ וְשָׁ֨ב יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃
and you return to your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then your God יהוה will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again from all the peoples where your God יהוה has scattered you. Deuteronomy 30:1-3

In Judaism, “Teshuva”, the word attributed to repentance, is related to return rather than apologizing.  Unpacking this language of returning is crucial to our understanding of how to move from a quick apology to a meaningful one with substance. The idea of returning about repentance is often described as “returning to God’s ways” or “returning to the right path”. While I certainly see value in that idea, I find the explanation of Maimonides to be extremely poignant.

Credit: Velveteen Rabbi

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, offers a good four-step system with guidelines for repentance. First, the individual must confess to their sin. Then they must express sincere remorse and resolve to not make the same mistake again. Next, one must do everything in their power to right the wrong. Finally, they have to act differently if the situation happens again. It is these last steps that are most vital for our purposes as Maimonides states “What is complete teshuvah? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin, and he possesses the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuvah and not out of fear or lack of strength.” 

In a ‘casual apology,’ only the first step, confessing the sin, and perhaps part of the second step, expressing remorse, are typically present. There’s often little consideration for the future. It’s steps three and four that deserve our attention. To truly rectify a wrong, we must work diligently to make amends. Most importantly, we should use our past actions as lessons to prevent future mistakes. Apologizing repeatedly for the same thing highlights the need for change, not just words.

In our fast-paced world, where people often scrutinize words and actions, frequent apologies are normal. The individual act of saying a quick “casual apology” is not in itself an issue per se, but merely expressing our apologies does not go far enough. It is the act of doing differently in the future and caring about the other person, especially when encountering the same situation where originally erring, that is key. We must ensure that our apologies are done with clarity and conviction and not as a means of selfishly helping ourselves. Human nature is to occasionally sin and make mistakes which is why Yom Kippur exists in the Jewish calendar, to allow us to repent, continually grow, and improve.

As we enter the Jewish New Year our goal should not be perfection or a cessation of sinning and apologies, but rather we should focus on repenting to improve for the future. We must not just say sorry for the past but yes to a more refined future. 

Shana Tova, may we all have a sweet new year of strength and growth.

About the Author
Eytan Saenger is a first-year student at Binghamton University. He previously spent a year at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem, and graduated SAR High School in Riverdale, NY where he is from. Eytan has had a podcast, written articles, and interviewed people related to politics and Judaism and has a weekly parsha insights chat. He has also previously interned for the American Jewish Committee(AJC) and done various political work.
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