Thursday, October 1, 2009

Generic apologies

While most of us think of the Days of Awe as ending with the neilah (concluding) service on Yom Kippur, the Rabbis point to Shemini Atzeret--the last day of Sukkot--as the real conclusion of this sacred season. With that in mind, I'd like to consider a matter of apologies and teshuvah.

It is a common custom in the Jewish world this time of year to approach others and offer a kind of formulaic apology: "For anything I have done over the past year that may have caused you hurt, please forgive me."

The common response is, of course, to grant forgiveness and offer the same apology in return.

So with that said, let me note: I find this tradition at best useless and at worst detrimental to a true effort at self-accounting and repentance.

I believe that generic apologies are meaningless. To apologize for everything is, in a sense, to apologize for nothing. As the old saying goes, both God and the devil are in the details. Apologizing means acknowledging specific things that we have done wrong. Without the specifics, there is something "cheap" about the apology: it lets the one who offers it feel good about apologizing when they have not really done anything at all. It is the equivalent of that classical political non-apology: "Mistakes were made."

My colleague, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman sent me a famous American poem, by William Carlos Williams, about a failure to really apologize, followed by a very funny parody of that piece. The parody captures the problem of generic "apologies" very well. I've included both below.

Meanwhile, let me know what you think. Is there a way to find meaning in generic apologies?

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This is Just to Say

I have run over
Your cat
In the driveway.

This probably comes
As a disappointment to you.

Forgive me
I was in a hurry
And I hate that (f-ing) cat.


Miriam said...

I tend to agree with you about generic apologies. On the other hand, the need to apologize specifically can create a delay. I have only this year been able to pin down exactly where my contribution to a destroyed friendship lay. I wonder, if i'd been able to apologize more generally years ago, would we still be speaking?

dan said...

This is a very good point. I think a generic apology can be a helpful thing if we learn to think of it as a beginning, a kind of conversation starter, rather than an end in and of itself.