Of all the silly sentences produced by American pop culture, my personal choice for silliest is Erich Segal’s, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (Who but a Yale professor could have written something so dumb?) “Love means always being prepared to say you are sorry,” is far sounder advice to newlyweds.
Certainly, the Torah places a high premium on the willingness to seek forgiveness from both G-d and man. Verbal confession is one of the essential elements of repentance. And Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentence, teaches that on Yom Kippur G-d will not forgive our sins against our fellow man until we have made restitution and received his forgiveness. Thus the custom of requesting mechillah (forgiveness) as Yom Kippur approaches.
Neither admitting that we have wronged someone else or seeking his forgiveness comes easily to most of us. Who has not experienced holding a phone in the air while trying to summon up the courage to make an uncomfortable phone call to someone we have injured? And usually the receiver is replaced with the call still unmade.
Even with loved ones, whom we can be pretty confident of having recently injured, we tend to put off our requests for forgiveness to late on Erev Yom Kippur. The lateness of the hour leaves less time to dwell on unpleasant details. But it also provides none of the purgative power of a serious request for forgiveness, with all the soul-searching entailed.
In recent years, I have been twice privileged to experience how elevated that self-scrutiny can be. One Erev Yom Kippur, I received a call from a rav who told me that he had been reviewing the past year, and feared that he had not expressed adequate gratitude to me.
What had I done for him? Almost nothing. I had spent the better part of an evening discussing with him a dispute in which he was involved in a particular institution. After further research, I had written a piece about the situation. But that piece was ultimately not published.
I never told the rav about the piece left on the cutting-room floor, and so as far as he knew, I had done nothing to follow up on our conversation. If anything, he would have been entitled to feel that I had let him down. Nor had I felt th e slightest bit unappreciated. After our late-night discussion, he had thanked me profusely for my time.
How I made it to his Erev Yom Kippur radar screen, I cannot fathom. But I gained from him some sense of what it means to truly scrutinize one’s deeds of the previous year.
LAST YEAR, I received an Erev Yom Kippur call from someone with whom I had a brief, and not terribly pleasant, conversation at least six months earlier. Prior to that, we had exchanged a few Emails, after he wrote me how much he had gained from a biography I had written.
When we found ourselves together at a conference a few months later, I was eager to make a personal connection. At the first break, I introduced myself and mentioned that if he had enjoyed the Rav Dessler biography, he would probably enjoy another one as well. I’m no stranger to verbal faux pas, and would be the first to grant that was not the classiest opening line. Still I was taken back by the sharpness of his response: “Don’t you have anything else to talk about than the books you have written?”
At that point, I could probably not have recalled my name, much less come up with a grabby new conversation topic, and so I beat a hasty retreat. I spent the next session puzzling over how I had provoked such a response, especially from someone I knew from a number of mutual acquaintances to be both too nice and too classy to cut down strangers for sport. In the end, I consoled myself that nothing had happened: We did not have a relationship before our brief exchange and clearly would not have one in the future. And, at least, no one had overheard our exchange.
With that, I put the matter out of mind. Out of mind, but not forgotten, it turned out, for when he called on Erev Yom Kippur, the memory of our last conversation came rushing back. And that conversation was the subject of his call.
He had not only remembered a 15-second exchange, in the course of a hectic year filled with hundreds of meetings. He had also overcome the temptation to tell himself that there was no point in dredging up an old insult I must surely have forgotten or was too thick to have noticed in the first place.
My first reaction to his request for mechillah was a feeling of closure on an unpleasant incident. My second was awe at the seriousness with which he approached Yom Kippur.
It turned out that I was wrong about there being no hope of ever establishing a future relationship. With that apology, a completely new page was opened, and we have since spoken at length. Indeed by revealing a depth of character in that I would never have known about had we just spent five minutes exchanging pleasantries, the apology paved the way for a much closer relationship.
I wonder how many other possibly rewarding relationships are lost just because of a failure to utter two simple words – “I’m sorry.” Worse, how many of our closest relationships are destroyed, pace Mr. Segal, because of the same failure?
Today, Erev Yom Kippur, is the ideal opportunity to experience the power of confession on both the one seeking forgiveness and the one giving it. The impact is immediate, and not confined to the Heavenly books that will be sealed tomorrow night at Neilah.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on September 21, 2007.