How to Apologize, and Mean It

I’ve always taught my children that the words “I’m sorry” should never be followed by the words “but” or “if.” A person shouldn’t say “I’m sorry, but…” since whatever comes after the “but” would amount to a nullification of the apology, a justification for whatever wrong that was done. And, similarly, a person shouldn’t say “I’m sorry if…” since whatever comes after the “if” makes the apology into a conditional statement in which the person who offers it isn’t sure they should be apologizing in the first place. Often we use the words “I’m sorry” casually and without meaning, sometimes even sarcastically, often as a catch phrase when we are hurried or not being mindful about how we’re interacting with others. But to offer an apology, to say “I’m sorry,” should be a powerful, intentional expression that results from a process of inner decision making.

The word apology comes from the Greek “apologos,” meaning to give an account of an event. In English, it is understood to mean a speech in defense of one’s actions, a justification for what one has done. Neither definition of the word rises to the level of the Jewish understanding of apologizing, an understanding that we encounter at this season of the year, the season of repentance, the time for expressing regret.

From the Jewish perspective, an apology is only one part of a larger process of seeking forgiveness for what we have done wrong. The Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204, Spain and Egypt) wrote that embracing what we have done wrong involves four steps. First, we must recognize the wrong we have committed and stop doing it. Second, we must confess what we have done (some sages teach that one must confess in public, though others say this is not necessary as it is so potentially embarrassing that people would rather not confess at all). Third, we must regret what we have done, which involves viewing it as a negative act and one that was potentially harmful. Finally, we must determine never to repeat the action. All of these steps are a necessary prelude to asking for forgiveness, whether from another person or from God.

Judaism thus views an apology not as an accounting or defense for what we have done, not as “I’m sorry but.” Rather, our religious tradition views an apology as a sincere statement made to another person in the context of asking for forgiveness. It is a genuine acceptance of responsibility for our actions, an expression of remorse and regret. It is the culmination of the Rambam’s process of coming to terms with the negative things we have done and understanding and accepting the impact they have had on others.

We’re now entering the season of repentance. We are called on to examine our lives with an open mind and an open heart, and make an accounting of what we have done in the year gone by. If we approach these moments with sincerity, we will be able to face whatever negative things what we have done, come to regret them, and resolve never to do them again.

Then, and only then, will be able to say “I’m sorry” and mean it.

Train_of_Life I invite you to be with us as the High Holiday season begins in earnest. This Saturday night, September 20, you are invited to view “Train of Life,” a fascinating movie set in Holocaust-era Poland, and share in a wonderfully spiritual service filled with prayer and music.

The movie will begin at 8:30 PM and the service will start at 10:30 PM.

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