I once backed my Volvo into a minivan in a parking lot and told the woman I hit that her car was too big for the spot she was in. I not only have a hard time saying I’m sorry, I also have difficulty spelling the word “apologize.”
Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to work on our sorry game. Jewish repentance entails asking God as well as humans for forgiveness and resolving not to commit the sin again. With a prayer-gorge that involves fasting, abstaining from physical pleasures (bathing, caffeine), and more hours in services than a typical Jew spends all year, the Day of Atonement packs a wallop. The main attraction is confessing guilt for communal and personal offenses committed against God, friends, loved ones, and the guy at the water cooler you told to wear long pants.
When it comes to people, asking for forgiveness is only half the battle. “While crucial to ask for forgiveness,” explains Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, “it’s equally important to grant forgiveness. The part about granting forgiveness has to do with letting go of grudges.” An expert at holding them, I understand the concept.
“We all are limited. We make mistakes,” he continues. “That’s a universal thing. But to practice apologizing and granting forgiveness in community — not in solitude, but person-to-person — that’s when we show we’re committed to growth.”
Easier said than done. I confess my parking lot story. “Part of us is hardwired to focus on ourselves,” he explains. “Often reputation, the notion of honor, or self-regard holds us up. It’s a survival instinct. But we must project ourselves to think of the needs of another person.”
Part of my own problem with apologizing is the myth that it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, not only is an apology a sign of strength but it’s good for your mental and physical health. A proper apology can relieve you of a guilty conscience (my fender-bender took place in 1998), unburden you from long-festering negative emotions, and increase self-esteem. In addition, it offers a power shift from shame to a positive self-reflection that opens the door to forgiveness and common ground.
I thought about the half-hearted apology I eventually handed Minivan Mom along with my insurance card. “Human beings have a good BS meter,” Weiner says. “If we can get past our grudge and be open to seeing sincerity, it’s actually sinful not to grant forgiveness. In fact, if we refuse to grant forgiveness, the person apologizing has done what they could, and now it’s on you. The idea in Judaism is not to hold a grudge or seek vengeance and to be open to a sincere offering.”
The rabbi sent me off with a simple three-part plan for repentance. First, evaluate what you have done wrong. (I lightly touched her bumper, but it was my fault.) Second, vow to change, and seek forgiveness. (If I see her again in the Target lot, I will wash her windshield.) And third, when faced with the same possibility, do the right thing — not just on Yom Kippur, but the other 364 days of the year.
Taking responsibility for our actions, large and small, enables us to move the needle in a positive direction. It lifts our spiritual and psychological burden, leading both sides to transform.
I’m sorry I didn’t learn this lesson earlier. At least we have Yom Kippur once a year.