Sept. 22, 2006
Journey towards atonement
How far should we go on the road to forgiveness for the holidays?
In the run-up to Yom Kippur, our tradition tells us we should ask
for forgiveness from our fellow humans for things we have done to
slight them. But our tradition also tells us that telling someone
you're sorry should come at any time of the year.
Naturally, this time of year carries more spiritual weight, and
reminds us to do some interpersonal housekeeping, should we have
been remiss in mending fences.
Indeed, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement,
tellingly is not called the Day of Forgiveness. In the days leading
up to our prayers, we ask for others to forgive us. If God doesn't
forgive if we don't repent, why should we forgive if someone doesn't
repent? You can ask God for forgiveness any time; it's other people
with whom you have a limited time to do it.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers, Chapt. 2) tells us that
we should seek apology the day before we die. How do we know when
we'll die? The commentaries tell us that it could be any day theoretically,
and thus we must ask for forgiveness quickly, as we may not be offered
that chance if we delay.
One story illustrates how important it is to rush to make an apology.
Rabbi Nosson of Bardichev was an ordinary rabbi who did an extraordinary
thing. In the 1800s in Russia, this rabbi would spend a great deal
of time visiting the infirm and their families, performing the mitzvah
of bikur holim (visiting the sick) by travelling far and
wide by horse and buggy, from community to community. One visit
in particular took him three and a half hours away from his own
town, to visit a man whose wife was terminally ill, unable to speak
or move. Nosson came to comfort the man.
During the visit, Nosson asked a simple question, seemingly innocuous,
seemingly polite, about how the man's wife was doing. Visibly distressed,
the man didn't answer, but instead told the rabbi that it might
be time to end his visit. The rabbi agreed, packed his things, said
goodbye and headed back on his long journey home.
But as he arrived, it occurred to him: he became embarrassed at
what he had asked just before leaving the man's house. In retrospect,
he realized he made someone feel extremely awkward, someone already
in enormous pain, who was implicitly reminded that his wife was
dying in the next room. Rather than comfort the man, he had made
him uncomfortable at the question.
What was the rabbi to do? It was the middle of the night and there
was no way to quickly reach this man for the rabbi to express his
Perhaps the man would shrug it off, the rabbi thought, but perhaps
he lost sleep over it, and could be bothered by it for a while.
If the latter, how could the rabbi express remorse? If he wrote
a letter or waited until the next visit, it could be weeks. He erred
on the side of caution, to be stringent, because of the advice of
Pirkei Avot: rush to make an apology.
The rabbi made the trek all the way back, planning to sit in the
buggy in front of the house, under the moon's light, and learn Torah
until he could approach the man as he was leaving for morning prayers.
But as the rabbi arrived, he saw through the window that the kerosene
lamp was still on. The rabbi knocked quietly at the door and, as
the door opened, both were red-faced. The man couldn't believe the
rabbi made the trip all the way back and the rabbi didn't quite
know how to apologize. He did, however, have a Jewish guidebook.
The respected sage Maimonides, also known as Rambam, wrote a book
800 years ago called The Way of Repentance. In it, he spells
out the formula for the kosher apology.
Common sense is reflected in Rambam's three basic rules of apology:
personally and expeditiously say specifically what you're sorry
for, promise unconditionally not to repeat it, and right the wrong.
In addition to apologizing, the Talmud says: "He who shows
embarrassment for his wrongdoing will be forgiven." (Brachot
One question that often comes up from this story is whether someone
needs to apologize for something they didn't mean, or something
unintentional. Certainly they do. For example, social decorum dictates
that if you're walking next to someone on the sidewalk and accidentally
step on their shoe, the correct reaction is to say you're sorry
even for a little "oopsy."
If you're trying to get to work but you're two hours late because
of an accident on the highway, it would be expected of you to approach
your boss when you finally arrive and apologize for being late,
even if the reason had nothing to do with you. Not apologizing,
and obliviously going about your business at work, would be correctly
perceived as insensitive and rude.
We are forced to make these apologetic efforts to function in normal
daily life and we, like Rabbi Nosson, most often rush to fix the
error. When our bigger apologies are needed to fix broken relationships,
however, that's the tricky part.
Relationships don't get better by avoiding the problems; they get
worse. Sweeping things under the carpet only means things are fine
until people start tripping over the bulge. Things build up, resentment
grows and it's harder to untie the knots. In the beginning, the
knot is like a shoelace bow that you can pull open and things are
back the way they were. But once you start double-knotting, even
triple-knotting, it's impossible to deal with, and often people
will choose to snip the strings abandon the relationship
rather than have to work at repair.
Be the type of person to address a problem, whatever the size, that
created discord between you and your friend. Don't wait for things
to smooth themselves out; don't wait for the other person to come
asking for dialogue, apologies or clarity, even if you think you're
not at fault.
The third-century Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi taught that so great is
the pursuit of harmony that even if we prayed to idols, but were
at peace with one another, God would ignore the idolatry worship,
"because there is peace between them." (Midrash B'reishet
Dave Gordon is a freelance writer whose work can be found
in numerous North American newspapers. He is currently writing three
books: Swords and Words, The Kosher Apology and How to
be a Grown Up Grown-Up.