Kol Nidre: The Year of the Good Apology

By: Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann

I’m sorry to tell you this, but just by being here, by fasting, by listening to me talk, by striking our chests at the litany of sins for which we are all in one way or another guilty…it’s not like that affects atonement. I kind of wish the tradition worked that way, but we don’t believe that rituals do interpersonal emotional work for us.

At best, Yom Kippur is a placeholder on the calendar to remind us to do the work of teshuvah ourselves. And so you’ll notice, as we go through the sins listed in every Vidui, confession, they are, almost all of them: about things we do to each other. Kind of a sneaky rabbinic move, taking this holiday that was all about atonement from sins against God and making it all about atonements among ourselves.

Now, we come here tonight both as victims and perpetrators. That is to say, people who have been hurt, and people who have caused hurt. And I don’t mean there are two separate categories of people… I mean, all of us are hurting, and all of us have hurt people. We have all been good… and we’ve all behaved at times in ways that didn’t reflect our best judgement.

The tradition tonight speaks to us as sinners. We stood here earlier and asked for the permission to pray in this his holy congregation full of avaryonim, sinners. Avaryonim– A-v-r, to cross. Same root as Iv-rim, Hebrews, people who crossed into new spiritual territory, new land… boundary crossers.  Except here it’s not positive. We are people who have crossed the line, violated a boundary, exploited trust – on purpose and by mistake. We will say this line 5 times over the course of the day: We are not so proud to stand here and say before you, “Tzadikim anachnu v’lo chatanu/we haven’t done anything wrong.” We have. We’ve sinned. Chatanu lifaneicha. We’ve sinned… we’re sinners.

As a rabbi, I have ample opportunities to offend and insult people daily. It means so much to me when you value the relationship with me enough to let me know when I’ve done something that confused or hurt you. To let me know when you think I’ve crossed a line. Every year I have a few conversations with people before Yom Kippur to clear the air about something.

As hard as it might be for me to hear how I’ve done or said or not done or not said something that was hurtful, by opening up the conversation, it gives me, the offender, a deeper understanding of YOU, and for both of us to enter into deeper relationship. It’s like when a bone breaks, it hurts so much, but if we align the pieces properly and hold them for a long time, we create the possibility that the place where that break happened might in fact become the strongest part of the bone.

I want to talk tonight about the particular healing balm that is a GOOD APOLOGY, the thing that we say and do when we’ve screwed up. Chatanu lifaneicha – we’ve messed up.

And it’s been a bad year for apologies. I mean… it’s been a bad Administration for apologies. Our Commander in Chief is constitutionally incapable of admitting fault and apologizing (though he seems to have real sympathy for all manner of unsavory men who have screwed up). But also, we’ve seen many public examples this year in particular of men apologizing for sexual misconduct, with apologies that leave something to be desired. But when you really look at them, many of them share some common elements of what make for a bad apology or a non-apology, #sorrynotsorry.

Think for a minute about when we’ve been on the receiving end of a bad apology. What made it a bad apology?

When Mishkan was first getting started, a colleague plagiarized something i wrote. It was the “support” page on our website. I happened to go to church that morning, and they handed the little pamphlet. I stared at my writing about Mishkan. Every place where Mishkan was mentioned on our website – the name of the church instead appeared. I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe it. I know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I’m guessing our donor base probably don’t really overlap, so I was probably the only one who picked this up. But I felt betrayed, I felt invisible, I felt like my work was stolen. So, after the service I wrote her an email. I let her know that I had been in the house that morning, I had seen the piece, and that I wish she’d call to ask my permission before copying and pasting whole sections of our website.

Here’s what she wrote back, “I loved what you wrote. I found it so inspiring. I didn’t know you would be visiting my church, so I figured what was the harm in sharing your beautiful words with my community? I’m sorry I didn’t know you would be visiting today– I would have asked.”

Good apology? No… why not? Notice every sentence in there starts with I. It’s all about her.. She didn’t pick up the phone to apologize. She explained, she justified herself, and at that it wasn’t a great explanation or justification. And I didn’t hear from her that she’d do it differently if given the opportunity. Just that she would have preferred not to have been caught.

It left a bad taste in my mouth. That relationship never recovered. I don’t trust her anymore. A good apology would have gone a long way toward repairing that damage.

Maimonides, the brilliant medieval Philosopher, talks about when a person who has made true teshuvah is confronted with the same situation in the future, will make a different choice than she made in the past, which is how you know she’s a true Ba’al Teshuvah. RamBam uses the example of a man sleeping with someone he shouldn’t be sleeping with. Complete teshuvah is being in the same place – the same hotel room, the same two people, the same raging libido… and making a different choice. It’s the teshuvah that addicts make on a daily basis, maybe multiple times a day.

How do you get to the place where you can be sure that given the same situation you’d choose a different path. Let alone, how do you demonstrate to people that you’ve changed or are sincere in your commitment to change and get to the point where you can offer a sincere apology?

RamBam offers these suggestions in Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 2. He says, 1) pray on it, cry, and, beg, ask God for help. I feel like a 21st century version of this would include: get help, see a therapist. go to a support group, meditate, journal, reflect. Essentially, attempt to understand what motivated that thing that wasn’t a reflection of your best self. Would you actually do exactly what you did again if given the opportunity? If the answer is yes… you’re not ready to apologize. Because you have nothing to apologize for. It wouldn’t be sincere. And you and I both know that you can sniff out the stink of an insincere apology.

2nd thing RamBam suggests: give charity. Do what you can to repair the damage for others. Show your commitment to the cause. One of the really surprising things about some of the men being accused of sexual misconduct is they are not generally standing up and donating millions of dollars to organizations doing trauma and rape counseling and prevention, women’s equality and empowerment. You might say, “Well, if they did do that, they’d just be accused of doing it for selfish reasons.”

Guess what, as far as Judaism is concerned, if your dollars are supporting people in need and healing lives, your motivation is a secondary concern. After screwing up, one of the frustrating truths is that we don’t always get to control the narrative about what happened. That shouldn’t prevent us from doing the next right thing.

3rd suggestion: separate yourself far from the object of your sin. Essentially, give the person you hurt some space. You may be very eager to clear the air once you realize you’ve done something wrong. You want to explain where you were coming from, to apologize sincerely and repair the relationship. I can’t tell you the number of times when all I want to do is just fix it, and move on. If the person I hurt understood where I was coming from, I think they’d probably not be so offended! They’ll see it through my eyes.

But RamBam says, not so fast, real teshuvah takes time. Emotions unfold, we go through waves, we’re angry, we’re offended, we feel betrayed. We wait, we sit with the feelings, we realize we feel betrayed because we loved, because we trusted, and that trust feels violated. We wonder if that trust might ever be regained, re-earned. And the only way to know is to give it some time.

And not time to emotionally disengage. But rather, time apart to let things sift and sort. Time apart from the person provoking the hormones that so often are driving our moods and our anger. Time apart from re-triggered feelings when you see the person who hurt you or who made you feel uncomfortable. This part of the process can’t be rushed. And while you, me, The Offender, may want to accelerate the healing process – that’s not how healing works. Anyone who has taken a cast off a broken bone too early can tell you all about how trying to force healing not only slows the process down but sets it back.

In fact, RamBam describes the person who apologizes too hastily, before the emotional work has been done, before there’s been an opportunity for real teshuvah, as like a person who immerses himself in a mikvah while [holding the carcass of] a lizard in his hand. His immersion will not be kosher – will not serve to purify him – until he casts away the carcass.”

You can’t rush the process. There has to be enough time to allow us to come to understand the weight and impact of our mistake. We need to be able to empathize with the experience of the person you hurt. All BEFORE approaching the person you hurt. This could take a few days, depending on what the issue was…or it could take years.

When we person have undertaken a sincere process of teshuvah, along the lines of what RamBam describes, we may be ready to confess, to apologize. RamBam suggests doing it publicly, for greater accountability for one’s actions, but whether one does it publicly or privately, one needs to state in words what they’ve done. And one needs to state in words their regret, remorse. One needs to acknowledge their sincere appreciation of the impact of their behavior. This requires shifting from “I’m sorry, and I regret what I’ve done,” to “You must feel violated, unsafe in your world… unsure about who to trust. And it’s because of something I did. I am so sorry.”

By the way, psychologists say that the empathy is the ingredient missing in most apologies, even the pretty decent ones. And obviously, any apology that begins with “I’m sorry I regret it I feel your pain,” and then is followed by a comma and a “but… but let me explain,” isn’t a real apology.  A real apology may involve the discomfort of knowing that, as the offender that there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation, and yet, that isn’t what needs to get said in your apology. Maybe that will come later, after you’ve opened the way, by demonstrating sincere contrition.

And finally, ask for forgiveness. And, as Rabbi Lauren described so beautifully on Erev Rosh HaShannah… we also can’t expect it. Teshuvah unfortunately doesn’t come with the guarantee that those around you will appreciate what it means to you to have done this work. The relationship might be over, or it might be over for now. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. It might just be that the reward for having done the work is in knowing that you’re a better version of yourself than you were before, that you’ve supported organizations and causes advancing holy work, that everyone who comes to know you for the rest of your life will get a better you. A good apology is less about receiving the response you hope for, and more about demonstrating to yourself and others that you’re truly sorry – that you understand the impact of your actions – and that you intend to be better. That given the same circumstances, you would now make a different choice, knowing what you know now. Unfortunately, teshuvah doesn’t come with any guarantees. Let alone that someone you hurt will be prepared to forgive you, because you’re ready. They may be on a different timeline.

Now RamBam goes onto say that if a person has truly made teshuvah, along the lines described here, the injured party would do well to forgive. And if they won’t or can’t, he says, the offender should come back a second time, and even a third time, to reiterate their remorse. After that, he says, it’s on the injured party to come to you if they want to reconcile. You’ve done what you can do. You don’t need to humiliate yourself.

I do want to say something about forgiveness when we’re the one holding onto our hurt. Psychologist Fred Luskin runs the Stanford Forgiveness Project in Palo Alto, CA, and helps people with long standing and deep-seated emotional grievances forgive, and thus sleep better, have lower cholesterol, anxiety, blood pressure and heart rates, and feel happier and more emotionally available in their lives. These are people whose children have been murdered, who have lost family members to gang violence and war, people who have been the victims of unspeakable crimes. And he says, everyone needs time to grieve and go through the building of what he calls “emotional competence” and healing. We have to be able to feel and name what went wrong and be able to speak about it and gain some sense of control before there can be a conversation about forgiveness. There’s no prescription on timing for that. It takes as long as it takes.

And we also know that there is a certain catharsis, a spiritual lightness, a letting go, that comes with forgiveness. There is a repairing of the broken fabric of trust and humanity between people when we are able to acknowledge the reality of what has been done to us. And even though we’re entitled to our anger and resentment, to choose a different way forward, because we cannot change the past. Teshuvah, it’s said, is giving up the hope for a better past. That’s kind of what Kol Nidre is all about. Relinquishing the hold that the past has on us and choosing a new way forward.

A good apology can make all the difference in our being able to create a new way forward. A way that models that while we all make mistakes – hatanu l’faneicha – sometimes devastating ones, we are all also capable of immense growth and repair. That’s what this holiday comes around every year to remind us.

May this be a season of real teshuvah for us, and some good apologies to people we’ve hurt, and growing and strengthening the fabric of love and humanity that connects us all. Gmar chatima tovah.