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  • Saying Sorry: What Does it Really Mean?

    Posted on June 22nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    This week we begin a occasional summer series on the topic of saying sorry. As we prepare our hearts and actions for the work of Elul, we hope that the words of the HUC-JIR faculty and staff will help deepen our own understandings and insights. This week, Dr. Richard Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought on the Cincinnati campus brings ancient wisdom to bear on some of our contemporary culture of apologizing.

    Dr. Richard Sarason

    “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    Readers of a certain age will recall this ad-line for the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s short novel Love Story, which was all the rage in pop and campus culture at the time.  I remember thinking—even then—how fatuous (and sentimental) that statement is.  For Jews, love means precisely having to say you’re sorry, but not just saying.

    As I am writing this piece, two prominent apologies have just been noted in the press.  First, Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum, began his testimony before the U.S. Congress with an apology to the American people for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which he acknowledged should never have happened.  To many, this must have felt like cold comfort and empty words after the fact, particularly when BP’s safety record has been so problematic for years.  The establishment of a $20 billion dollar fund to compensate those whose livelihoods have been ruined by the spill (after some arm-twisting from President Obama) is at least an attempt to make good on the apology. Words must be followed by actions if they are to be given any credence, because deeds have consequences.

    Two days earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron had issued an official apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings by British troops of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry—and he, too, used words similar to those of Tony Hayward: “What happened should never, ever have happened.”  But of course it did, and there’s the rub.  Only deeds can atone for deeds—but words can have profound symbolic significance as an outward expression of an inward change.  As John F. Burns noted in The New York Times Week in Review on June 20, “Seen from the historical viewpoint, this was an act of reconciliation to be listed alongside . . .[those of] other penitents throughout the ages.”

    Which brings us full circle back to a religious perspective and to our own Jewish tradition as we prepare once again for the High Holy Days. (One of our sons as a child used to refer, not incorrectly, to Yom Kippur as “I’m Sorry Day”).

    I always carry around in my head a little verse that I memorized as a first-grader in religious school, from Dorothy Kripke’s children’s book, Let’s Talk About God:

    God and friends and parents

    Forgive wrong things we do

    If we can say, “I’m sorry,”

    And really mean it, too.

    Herein is both the problem and, perhaps, a way toward a solution.  Talk is cheap.  Words do not, cannot, undo deeds.  But words can at least begin the process of restitution and reconciliation as an outward expression of an inward change, as an acknowledgement of  responsibility for one’s actions, as a way of reaching out to the other.

    Maimonides’ definition of teshuvah (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada’, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1) notes that the process of teshuvah must begin with a verbal confession (vidui)—in words, out loud—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. (And if this verbal confession is hypocritical, the person is like one who immerses in a mikveh still holding onto a dead creeping thing, a primary source of impurity; Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:3—what a powerfully concrete analogy!).  Expanding upon M. Yoma 8:9, Maimonides continues, “Transgressions against one’s fellow, as for instance, if one wounds, curses or robs one’s neighbor or commits similar wrongs, are never pardoned until the injured party has received due compensation and has also been appeased.  Even though he has made compensation, the wrongdoer must also appease the one he has injured and ask his forgiveness.  Even if a person only annoyed another in words, he has to pacify the latter and entreat him until he has obtained his forgiveness” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9-10).

    So, while words alone do not suffice for full repentance (they must be accompanied by compensation and a change in behavior), they are a necessary part of the process: words are our first line of social communication as adults.  (We socialize our children by saying: “Use your words.”)  But our words must truly express who we are and what we mean when we wish to make amends and to change relationships.  And then we must stand by our words with deeds—“and really mean it, too.”


    One response to “Saying Sorry: What Does it Really Mean?”

    1. [...] it. The intention is not enough; it has to be clearly articulated, as Dr. Rick Sarason taught in his blog post. At the same time, forgiving is a self reflective ongoing process. Even when we know we need to [...]

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