Saying sorry

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    Thank you. Accepted.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    Secular American culture since the late 1960s has lost much in the way of any sense of shame,guilt, sorrow, modesty and propriety in a mad rush to do away with any but the most essential differences between the genders.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    What do differences between genders have to do with a sense of shame, guilt, and sorrow?

  4. Harry Maryles says:

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

    First let me say that this article is quite profound in its message of the Bein Adam L’Chavero aspect if Teshuva and I fully agree with you. You are a role model of behavior in this regard and I believe that people should know that about you.

    As to the above quote from Professor Erich Segal, I have heard Frum speakers pretty make pretty much the same criticsm of it as you have. But I reject this characterization of his famous line.

    Properly understood, all Prof. Segal was trying to say is that if one truly loves another, one will never do anything that will give his or her loved one cause to apolgize for. It does not mean that saying “I’m sorry” is a bad thing. That quote does not at all say anything like that, I’m sure that Prof. Segal would agree that if one does indeed wrong another human being, then apoplgizing and seeking forgiveness is quite in order and the right thing to do.

    The only criticism one might have with that quote is the unrealistic expectation…that in any truly close realtionship one would never have cause to apologize.

    But in theory never having to say you’re sorry is a good goal. Becuase that means you have never ever done anything that would require an apology.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Ori-One can trace the rise of both the sexual revolution and feminism as two of the worst sources of moral and cultural decay. IMO, they go hand in hand.

  6. One Christian's perspective says:

    Ori-One can trace the rise of both the sexual revolution and feminism as two of the worst sources of moral and cultural decay. IMO, they go hand in hand. – Comment by Steve Brizel

    Yet, one wonders how the woman could participate in the revolution without the man and what hopeless place have the women found themselves where they seek to be more like the man just so that they can be seen of value.

    Desperate people need compassion, kindness, and sincere gentle leading by people who love G-d.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Harry Maryles, never having to say you’re sorry is a good goal in theory, but isn’t it the a very unrealistic goal? We don’t have telepathy to always know what will hurt somebody we love. We don’t have prophecy to know the full consequences of our actions. An unrealistic goal like that seems like a sure path to disappointment and disillusionment.

    Steve Brizel, is this because more children are raised without a father now, or some other reason?

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Ori-Once upon a time, fathering a child out of wedlock not only was immoral, it was illegal in most parts of the US. Today, one does not see a raised eyebrow as our celebrity driven media reports on such a development almost on a daily basis.

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