I’m Sorry

2012-09-19 – Monday I talked about sin and this season of repentance. My cousin’s daughter Em posted this on my Facebook page in response: “If only people [asked for forgiveness] year round instead of only once a year.”

My response to her was this: “There actually is a mini version of [the Yom Kippur confessional] in the daily liturgy. But I think for most people, once a year is too much! My father and your grandfather had a brother who didn’t talk to them for maybe 50 years. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples of people not being able to reconcile for years, decades, generations.”

The brothers never reconciled. To the day they died.

Em’s response was “What a waste!”

Why is it so hard to say you’re sorry?

The easy case is when you’ve hurt someone intentionally. If you want to restore the relationship, you say you’re sorry. But like my uncles, people have a hard time with apologies.

I call this the easy case only because the others are harder. Intentional hurts are at least clear and you might actually feel guilt. But what about the unintentional?

My wife tells me I have a hard time apologizing, to which I say: “I’m sorry but you are wrong.” (It’s not even good for a laugh!) But the truth is that I might not even know an apology is due. I may be oblivious to a hurt. I may think that I am right and justified. I may not know I did anything at all. I mean, as we learned from the 1970 film Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Right?

Not according to Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition provides us with a confessional especially (but, of course, not exclusively) focused on the wrongs that we commit without meaning to. Jewish tradition asks us to be mindful of the things that we do that thoughtlessly hurt our family and friends.

And asks us to make amends. The issue really isn’t who is right or who started it. The issue is the repair of the relationship. Love means always having to say you’re sorry.

The news for the last few days has been filled with the struggles of one politician, Mitt Romney, who launched his latest bid for the Presidency two years ago with the publication of a book entitled No Apology. Whatever you think of his politics, the idea of never apologizing makes recovering from a mistake really difficult. I don’t know where the idea ever came from that politicians are somehow exempt from the human need to reconcile with others.

Apologies sometimes are a recognition of intentional wrong, and apologizing for intentional wrong does mean an acknowledgement of the wrongness of the intent. But so many of the hurts we inflict on our fellow human beings are just thoughtless. And those kinds of apologies don’t require an acknowledgement of wrong intent, but rather a statement of caring. A statement that you care enough to guard against unintentional hurt.

As I said before, it’s a difficult thing. But our tradition asks it of us.

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