Recently I was reading a rather humorous, but unfortunately a rather sad 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 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.
The article was kind of humorous as it pokes fun at individuals who don’t know how to or cannot bring themselves to truly apologize for a wrongdoing. It is also sad. Why do we have trouble sincerely apologizing when we are wrong? The truth is that if our egos are so fragile, if we have such low self-esteem, then admitting we made a mistake is too threatening for our egos to tolerate. So when we apologize, we do so half-heartedly.
In discussing the laws of the Aseret Ymei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, Rav Moshe Isserles (the “Rema”) hints at another reason why we may have trouble sincerely apologizing when we are wrong. He writes: “v’yesh l’khol 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.”
According to the Rema, we have to be more concerned about repenting from doubtful sins than from definite sins. Why? Because we have Jewish guilt and we tend to feel guilty for the sins that we definitely committed and we spend this time of the year apologizing for those mistakes and thinking about ways to try to correct those sins in order do better in the future. However, what about those situations where we are not convinced that we were wrong? What about those situations where we may have been partially to blame, but we tell ourselves that the other person deserved it because he or she also acted improperly. In those situations and others like them, we tend to justify our bad behavior. In those instances, if we do apologize at all, our apologies may not be so sincere.
A story is told about Rav Chaim Brisker who headed a bet din, a Jewish court, and in a particular court case, he ruled that a particular butcher owed someone else 3,000 rubles. After hearing the verdict, the butcher called Rav Chaim a thief and a murderer and shouted similar words of verbal abuse. Initially, Rav Chaim tried to deal calmly with the butcher, but the butcher continued to heap insult upon insult until finally R. Chaim said, “You chutzpan, get out of my bet din!”
The verdict was issued in the month of Av. About two months later, on Erev Yom Kippur of the next year, when the whole community was gathered in shul about a half hour before sunset, Rav Chaim turned to his three children and said that they should go with him to another shul, the shul where the butcher davened. Rav Chaim wanted to ask the butcher for forgiveness. Rav Chaim had every reason to assume that he was in the right as the butcher disrespected him, but Rav Chaim felt that even in this instance, he was partially responsible.
As we spend the next month contemplating our teshuva and our apologies in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, maybe we should think about some of the troubled relationships we have in our lives. Maybe these are relationships with family members or friends that are currently strained because of a conflict that occurred. Or maybe these are relationships we’ve neglected, because we consciously or unconsciously decided that we are not going to invest in the relationship anymore. Perhaps we are upset about something the other person did to us, or perhaps we don’t think that the other person is putting enough effort into the relationship. Maybe this Yamim Noraim season, it’s time to change our frame of reference and consider what we may have done to the other person or what we may have done to the relationship. Maybe we should follow the advice of the Rema and take responsibility for even our doubtful sins, when we are not convinced that we did anything wrong or we believe that the other person is more at fault. Maybe then our apologies will start to sound like real apologies.