During this season of ‘Slichot’, the prayers asking God for forgiveness, or as our Catholic brethren say, ‘an Act of Contrition’, my mind turns once again to those acts of repentance that are so commonly displayed here, usually by those accused of criminal acts.
In our quasi-religious society, it is commonly accepted, and expected, that simply by saying “I’m Sorry”, one is absolved (at least morally) of the crime one has committed. These crimes can be high – rape, murder, grand theft or simple assault, or low – cursing one’s fellow man for their color or ethnicity, or cutting them off on the highway simply because you feel you have a right to do so – a right which you purchased along with your outrageously expensive SUV.
Genuine contrition, as so rarely displayed, contains elements of the wish to be forgiven, but also the acceptance that what you have done is wrong, hurtful and contrary to accepted norms of behavior in a civilized society. (This of course assumes that we accept that we are living in a civilized society.)
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, it is common to hear and see friends, neighbors and mere acquaintances asking for your forgiveness for wrongs they have committed against you during the past year. It is almost unheard of to hear the specifics of those act, and the acceptance of the fact that the act was hurtful. Asking for forgiveness, it seems, is enough – there is no real need to mean it. Likewise, in the courts, it is not uncommon to see a hardened, “professional” criminals don a ‘kipa’, in the hope that the judges will see this as physical evidence of an act of contrition – though they will never, ever actually come out and say “Yes, I did this crime and I am truly sorry for having done so.” Denial is forever stronger than remorse or contrition, and hope springs eternal in the criminal breast.
Too many examples of such behavior have been seen in the past years for me to enumerate here. Enough to say that this behavior of false contrition is not restricted to the underworld and organized crime. Even high officials, when presented with irrefutable evidence of their criminal transgressions, before or after having been convicted in a court of law, will never stand up and say “Yes, I did this, I accept the fact that my behavior was criminal and against the common good. I am truly sorry for what I have done and I ask forgiveness from those I have transgressed against.”
Berating and insulting one’s fellow citizen, purely on the basis of their skin color or ethnic affiliation, has become accepted behavior – if it is followed within 24 hours by a public utterance of “I’m sorry.” Nothing more. One can express the most outrageous opinions of other people – be they members of an opposing political party or of a minority sector of the population – if you hurry up and say “Whoops, I’m sorry” within a reasonable time frame. It’s the instant ‘get-out-of-jail’ card – no roll of the dice in court is necessary. Just open your mouth again, say the magic words, and you’re home free. But … there is no contrition, no true expression of ‘slichot’. And what never ceases to amaze me is that this is accepted by ‘the system’!
In truly (or at least more) civilized societies, laws against hate crimes are prosecuted vigorously (at least sometimes), with no weight AT ALL given to false expressions of contrition (or political positioning). But Israeli/Jewish society is normally of a very forgiving nature, and misbehavior on a minor, personal level is soon forgotten (if not entirely forgiven) if a blanket, automatic “sorry” is forthcoming. At least, so it seems. The public is less forgiving of criminal behavior than the courts are, but that does us little good. Only when the transgressions are of a nationalistic nature does the public rally round and shout “Forgive!”, even when no contrition of any sort is uttered. So – are we to be forgiven our personal ‘slichot’? When we forgive someone else’s wrongdoings, without them having made a true act of contrition, who is to blame?