Saying Sorry for the High Holidays

by Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon

“I’m sorry.” I hear the words drop out of me like rain from the sky. I don’t want to say them. Words of apology don’t come easy to me. Sometimes, when I say them, I don’t feel their weight when they roll off my lips. I just say that thing that I’ve rehearsed in my head so many times because this is the time of year to do it. Sometimes I disassociate my feelings from my state of mind because of the severe embarrassment I experience. I can’t believe I did that - I say to myself. I wish I could change it. But I can’t. So I do the next best thing. I put words of reconciliation and hope into the space between two people, and like the seconds before a high speed collision, I pray these words cushion the impact. Please set me free and receive this apology. It’s God’s way forward. Aaron the High Priest told me.


Why is apologizing so hard to do? The body mechanics of it are easy enough. 1) Plant your feet on the ground. 2) Breathe in and out to regulate your heart rate and emotionality. 3) Make eye contact with the person you hurt. 4) Square your shoulders to them. 5) Confess to the person the indiscretion you committed. 6) Ask them for their forgiveness. 7) Thank them for accepting your apology. 8) *Pre-COVID option* give them a hug.


Apologies are hard because they break the way humans process time itself. You’re going along, being you, when boom! From the vantage point of vanity, maybe your cell phone or succumbing to a weak moment - you see all the things in the universe you’d rather be having. Jealousy, envy, greed, and sloth corrupt the very meditations of our waking life. The longer we wish we had what is not ours, the more real our despair grows. A friend told me on the phone the other day that they were friends with my parents because my parents own a pool. “Oh...” I said waiting for the friend to follow up with a qualifier. Then there was nervous laughter, “I didn’t mean it that way,” She said, “You know I think they’re cool, too.” She said. “It’s ok” I say back, understanding just how hard it is to convey love and friendship and envy and jealousy. “I wish I had my parents pool too.” I said back to her and then to myself  “don’t be super-sensitive” I warn, “She didn’t mean anything. Apology unnecessary.”


Accountability is a term best suited for a machine’s accuracy - it’s not an advantageous state for humans to be in. The easiest way to make an apology is to avoid hurting another person entirely. But therein lies the problem. When you’re always looking over your shoulder to make sure you don’t offend anyone, you have one less eye pressed to the horizon. If I personally tailored my sermons to maximize inoffensiveness I would be about as interesting as watching paint dry or counting ceiling tiles. Instead, I spontaneously say wild things to glorify G-d, for love of Israel, of Ahavat Yisrael, for the love of my community and despite all of those enticing things I say, I still owe those whom I upset a sincere and thought-out apology. Passion is only palatable when tempered with empathy.


Last year I wrote an article condemning a Lebanon senator following charges of child pornography. It became an article that was shared through the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and the local LebTown news. I regretfully judged this man before his trial by saying that his action was beyond apologies. In an opinion section of the news, I did what would be described as Lashon Hara. Evil speak.  I jumped to a conclusion without allowing due process to play out. In a different situation, I could have falsely accused an innocent person. This action is what the Chofetz Hayim describes as dust, a substance so fine that unless you take great measure to rid yourself of it - it is easy to be infiltrated and to succumb to passive judgement. Dust gets everywhere.


As we ready ourselves for a new Jewish year, let’s remember the modest and hard steps communities need to take to purify themselves for the Book of Life. We no longer have our usual public spaces accessible to socialize in. This means we need to be even more intentional in the ways we apologize. There may not be an opportunity to casually meet someone at the watercooler to say, “Hey, I hope you forgot about that thing I did.” This year, all the more so, we must confront those people with kindness, sincerity, and bravery. We must dust off the dilapidation of a year partially spent in quarantine.


We must say boldly, “I’m sorry for the hurt I caused you. Please forgive me. Let’s pray together.”