What makes a person a mensch? It is more than being a good person. It requires being there for the other in his/her time of need, even dropping everything you are doing to be fully present for the other. This is extremely difficult with the myriad tasks we must do in any given day. It can be challenging to always be present and one is more likely to sin (“miss the mark”) by having a quick reply to a situation that requires further discussion or listening. Alternatively, one is likely to convey judgment in body language as well as tuning others out precisely when they need a listening ear. In such cases teshuva (repentance) is needed through an apology. As we know, apologizing is not always as easy as meets the eye.
In her piece in the NY Times, Jane Brody writes “Most people say ‘I’m sorry’ many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, ‘No problem.’
However, when ‘I’m sorry’ are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts, or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded-especially if it laden with defensiveness or excuses. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism and undermine an important relationship.”
I want to add to Brody’s comments that there are also times when sorry does not cut it, when it is something that easily rolls off our tongues without any effort or heartache. The art of the apology involves also knowing when something more is needed than an apology or when an email apology is insufficient and one needs to pick up the phone or (harder in an age of COVID-19) get together for coffee to look the other in the eyes.
Brody continues, “I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions. I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.”
If you would like to read more of Brody’s article it is from the New York Times on January 30, 2017. However, I would like to take a moment to discuss the implications of this for where we are at in the Jewish calendar. We just had the entire month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah where we were commanded to do Heshbon HaNefesh (soul searching), delving deep into our souls and seeing where we fell short and the unfinished business which remains. Turning inward and admitting one’s faults is most difficult work. After today, we have 1 week of repentance to apologize to those we have wronged and ask for forgiveness-not in a trite, generic way but for specific things we have done wrong through our own ‘soul searching.’ In an age of COVID-19 I believe this is harder to do because we do not physically see one another. It is true that we can meet via FaceTime or Zoom but that is not the same as a face-to-face conversation. This year we must be especially mindful of the need not only to apologize but also to find the best medium, as face-to-face is not available for many of us.
How do we find the best words-especially when loose lips might have gotten us into trouble? Only through thoughtful introspection can we hope to do so. We also need to hope that those whom we offended are gracious enough to ‘hit the reset button,’ to acknowledge that what was done, though hurtful, is in the past and that we both need to move on to create a new beginning together. I have come to learn that things are often not as bad as we make them out to be, that very few times are the bridges between ourselves and others actually burnt to the ground.
As we continue to embrace New Year 5781 in these 10 days of repentance, I hope that we will keep this in mind when we look at what we wish we could have done better in our pasts and look forward to how we can strive to improve. Let us not forget to live in the present, to be mindful of where we are at now. We cannot change our pasts nor is our future set to occur in exactly the way we anticipate. I hope that when we apologize, we will genuinely mean it rather than giving a habitual reaction of “lip service”-in such cases it might be better to say nothing at all. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to strive to improve in our responses to these challenging situations. Let us enter into the new year with an open heart rather than a closed off spirit, believing that we can make the differences we need to in interpersonal relationships with others, and in so doing may we need to apologize far less in the year 5781.
 Jane Brody, “The Right Way to Say I’m Sorry,” NY Times, January 30, 2017.