This is Just to Say: The Perils and Possibilities of Apology
Rosh Hashanah Evening 5771
Introduction: When “I’m sorry” Isn’t
It is customary for many Jews, during this High Holy Day season, to offer friends and acquaintances a formulaic statement of apology: “I am sorry for anything I may have said or done that hurt or offended you. Please forgive me.”
In past years, when tendered such requests, I have responded in kind: “And for any pain and offense that I have caused you, I, too, am sorry.”
But tonight I wish to inform you that I will no longer extend this reply. After serious reflection, I have come to believe that this kind of prescribed contrition—at least when taken at face value—falls far short of a genuine apology and is therefore not in keeping with core Jewish values. I recognize that I am as guilty here as anyone, but I am also confident that we can all do so much better.
Indeed, I now see this ritualistic exchange as a classic example of the apology that does not really apologize. Sadly, we have all experienced this phenomenon, because we humans are so very good at inadequate apologies. How could we fail to master this depressing skill? We learn so early, from the first time our aggrieved parents insist that we apologize to a friend or sibling, and we storm out, with gritted teeth, angrily grunting, “I’m sorry. . .”
If we aspire to something higher, to master the art of real repentance, we must acknowledge how challenging it is to apologize thoughtfully and honestly. On this Rosh Hashanah eve, on the cusp of these Days of Awe, when we seek the path of true teshuvah--of sincerely regretting, confessing, and transforming our poor behavior—we might begin by examining what constitutes a genuine apology and what fails to make the grade.
“This is Just to Say”—“Apology” without Regret
Last year, the radio program, “This American Life” dedicated an entire show to “apologies that aren’t.” The last segment opened with the reporter, Sean Cole, sharing a famous poem by William Carlos Williams. As the story goes, Williams originally wrote it as a note to his wife, which he left taped to the refrigerator door. It reads:
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
What a classic ersatz apology! The writer knows full well that his wife was saving those plums, yet immediately after a perfunctory request for forgiveness, he rubs salt into the wound by boasting of how much he enjoyed them. This outrageous chutzpah has helped make “This is Just to Say” one of the most parodied bits of American prose. It almost dares the reader to come up with ever more absurd non-apologies, and the radio show concluded with some very witty examples. To share just one, by the poet Kenneth Koch:
This is Just to Say
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer
I am sorry but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor
Such amusing, over-the-top satire invites our laughter. But just beneath the surface of the humor, it also evokes an uneasy familiarity. We recognize ourselves as the real butts of this joke. For who among us has not offered, in a slightly less ridiculous manner, just such a hollow apology, with no real feeling of regret?
I’m Sorry You are Mad at Me—A Cornucopia of Bad Apologies
And this is only one mode of failed apologies. Alas, we contrive so many ways to express our contrition badly. Writer Alina Tugend critiques a few in a piece she wrote for the New York Times. She reminds us that anything beginning with “I want to apologize” is no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Statements like “I’m sorry that you are upset,” or “It’s too bad that you feel that way” are even worse. Their sorrow is feigned. Instead of demonstrating real remorse on the part of the speaker, they patronizingly imply that the injured party is just too sensitive. When we lament to those we’ve hurt: “I’m agonizing about this. I’ve been losing sleep, I feel so bad,” we insinuate to the wronged party that they are guilty of causing us distress.
What are some of the other hallmarks of inadequate or insincere apologies? My colleague, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, offers a helpful compendium. One sure sign is the use of the passive voice, the eternal fallback of scandal-ridden politicians, failed generals, and corrupt CEOs. This is the source of that most ubiquitous—and insidious—of all non-apologies, the classic three word cop out: “Mistakes were made.” As if the speaker had nothing to do with those mistakes, and no responsibility for their consequences! We shudder when we hear such statements coming from the mouths of BP executives, and yet we so often offer much the same to the friends, family, and co-workers who suffer the brunt of our own misdeeds.
Our words of regret also fall short when they minimize the offense or conclude with efforts of self-justification. “You know, in the end, this wasn’t such a big deal; still, I’m sorry” is not really sorry. And any request for forgiveness with a but or even though at its center is more about ego than contrition. “I apologize even though I didn’t do it on purpose. . . I had a hard day” does not pass mustard. Nor do vague and incomplete admissions of offenses. In order to be effective, apologies need to be concrete. They must acknowledge specific misdeeds and the pain they caused rather than vaguely referencing general misbehavior. This is why the traditional formula, with which I began this evening—“I apologize for anything I might have said or done”—fails the true teshuvah test. Such generalizations let us to absolve ourselves without really confronting the damage that we have done; they relieve us of the hard but necessary labor of reflecting on what we are really sorry about. To apologize, generically, for everything is, in the end, to apologize for nothing.
The Medium Matters
In making amends, the words we choose create a world of difference. The way that we deliver those words also matters deeply. As any parent knows all too well, the measure of sincerity in “I’m sorry” often lies in the speaker’s tone. Even the best acting can rarely mask disingenuous intentions for very long. And the importance of tone points to the inadequacy of cyber apologies. When showing remorse, it is usually best to speak face to face, to confess one’s misdeeds directly to the offended party. When an expression of regret requires more reflective time and perspective, an old-fashioned, carefully crafted letter of apology can be very effective. And in making amends long distance, sometimes the best that we can do is to talk by telephone. But when we use e-mail and text messaging to say “I’m sorry” we betray a kind of moral laziness or cowardice. If we hurt another person, we owe them our full presence when we ask for their forgiveness.
The Bottom Line: A Failure to Accept Responsibility
This is, no doubt, just a small sample of the manifold ways we contrive to apologize without really apologizing. But in the end, the same root cause underlies all of these misguided approaches. Each is, in its own way, just another expression of our ultimate failure to accept responsibility for our faults. The sincerity of our contrition is always measured by the extent to which we acknowledge and own our sins. This requires insight, courage, and conviction. Without these things, true teshuvah is simply not possible. But with them, when are reflective, open and honest, we can slowly but surely transform ourselves.
The Way Begins with Sincere Words
So how do we begin to apologize well, and then translate our words into consistent and concrete actions? In her article, Alina Tugend concludes: “A good apology always has the same essentials. These include an acknowledgment of the fault or offense, regret and responsibility for it — and, if possible, a way to fix the problem.”
The great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, elaborates on this theme in his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. He notes that the process of teshuvah commences with a vidui, a verbal confession—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. “Even when we brought sacrifices for our sins,” he reminds us, “back in the days of the
Deeds Must Follow
In short, the way begins with words. Intention is not enough; as Talmud teaches, “D’varim sh’b’lev, aynam d’varim—thoughts in the heart—unarticulated words—are as if they do not exist.” Teshuvah starts with an expression of contrition offered out loud, directly to those we have offended, in a manner that acknowledges our transgressions clearly, concretely, and without excuses. This, alone, is no easy task. But even when well chosen and courageously spoken, words are not enough. They are only a beginning. The final ingredient of an effective apology, which is both the hardest and the most important, is the follow through. After we sincerely express our remorse, it is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to make restitution to those we have hurt and then embrace the long term challenge of improving our behavior, repairing our faults, and healing what is broken in ourselves, our communities, and our battered but still beautiful world. Dorothy Kripke put it very well in her elegant 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.
A strong, solid apology, in which the offending party accepts full responsibility for their transgressions, can open the process of true teshuvah. It is the first step toward restitution, reconciliation, and renewal. While words cannot undue the past, they can help transform the future. And when they set the course for a significant shift in action, when they pave the way for holy deeds, they change everything.
All Real Life is Meeting: A Story of Teshuvah
Consider this story from the life of Martin Buber, one of the greatest Jewish teachers and philosophers of the twentieth century. It is said that early in his teaching career, Buber would sit alone in his office for many hours each day, immersed in prayer and study. One morning, a student knocked on his door, seeking a meeting with the professor. Buber took a short break from his labors to talk with the young man. The student asked a few brief questions; the teacher listened—or so he thought—and offered a succinct response. The student thanked him for his time and left, and Martin Buber, feeling that all had gone well, returned to his work. The next day, Buber discovered that hours after leaving his office, the student had committed suicide.
This news threw Martin Buber into shock and despair. He closed his books, and sat silently, in deep grief and reflection. Over and over, he asked himself: What can a person offer to a fellow human being in need? After living with this question for many days, Buber finally arrived at the answer that would change his life. He realized that when someone who is suffering goes to another person for help, the sufferer seeks, above all, a caring and listening presence, through which he or she comes to understand that even when all feels lost, life has meaning.
With that insight, Buber’s entire spiritual orientation shifted. He realized that his calling—and ours, too—is to truly listen to others, to devote one’s full time and attention to really hearing people, to meeting them, heart and soul. He wrote and spoke publicly about his remorse over his student’s death, and the major theme of his magnum opus, I and Thou is that human life finds meaning in relationships, that we experience God most fully in encounters with one another. Buber’s failure with that one student, and the true expression of contrition that followed, led him to the essence of his later philosophy: “All real life is meeting.” Transformed by his regret and his commitment to learning from it, he strove to be fully available and present to whatever and whomever life brought his way. His experience awakened him to the cries and needs of all people, and of all God’s creation. Out of a single failure, which he honestly acknowledged, and for which he consistently called himself to account, his life became a remarkable model of giving.
Martin Buber’s story is, like the man himself, somewhat larger than life. Most of our personal tales of teshuvah are far less dramatic. Yet each of our sins and shortcomings, no matter how mundane, offers a potential portal to this same journey: from regret and remorse through restitution and re-dedication to renewal and, we pray, redemption. We, too, can transform ourselves, beginning with our failings. And the process of transformation starts when we accept responsibility for our failures with a strong, direct apology, offered with sincere contrition and a clear commitment to changing our ways.
Conclusion: Conversations and Commitments
This brings me back, full circle, to that formulaic request with which I began: “I am sorry for anything I may have said or done that hurt or offended you. Please forgive me.” While, as I have noted, I think the vague, generic nature of these traditional words renders them ineffective as apology, I still believe that they possess one significant piece of redeeming value. Their virtue lies as an opening, a conversation starter, an invitation to engage in a deeper process that can move both parties toward real repentance and growth.
So please, feel free to approach me and offer those words, or something similar, during these Days of Awe; just don’t expect a quick and easy response. Instead, I will suggest: let’s take some time to sit and talk, to share our hurts and regrets. Let us look specifically at concrete instances in which one or both of us either intentionally or inadvertently wronged the other. And then let us think about ways to reconcile and move forward, stronger for having listened to and learned from one another. Let’s have these conversations, you and I, and let’s initiate them with our families and our friends and our community in this sacred season. Our tradition refers to the time between now and Yom Kippur as the Ten Days of Repentance. I encourage us all to make the most of this time by reflecting on our failures of the past year. Let us consider: What have I done to cause harm? What is my responsibility? As we conduct this personal accounting, let us be specific in citing our failures, and careful to avoid rationalizing or minimizing the choices that we have since come to regret. Then, before Yom Kippur arrives next week, let us make every effort to recognize at least one act of wrongdoing, one personal failure that caused unnecessary pain to someone close to us. May we muster the strength we need to acknowledge our failures verbally, in writing or in speech, to seek out those injured by our misdeeds, to apologize, and to make amends. If you are not ready to do this through direct engagement, then try writing a letter of apology. What matters most is that we accept our fair share of responsibility and open the conversation sincerely.
Tonight, we celebrate a new year, 5771. I pray that it will be one in which our faults and failings are diminished, our wise choices and acts of kindness ever increased. And when, as is inevitable, we do err in ways that create suffering for one another and for ourselves, may God help us to find the courage to apologize well, and the commitment to stay the course of reconciliation and renewal.
Ken y’hi ratzon