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Rabbi's Column

A Yom Kippur Gift

By Rabbi Janet Marder

Dear Diary,

I would like to apologize to the woman driving a Subaru on Sunday evening, January 28, 2018. I was having a bad few weeks with a partner’s illness, and I became fixated on finding a parking spot that would be good until Tuesday morning. So I nosed into a spot that I considered mine and nosed you out.

I hope you will forgive me. I did wish you good parking karma and hope you found a spot quickly. I do forgive you for the name you called me.

May the parking gods smile on you.

-- Arlene Diesenhouse

This short letter, which appeared on August 18, 2019 in the “Metropolitan Diary” section of The New York Times, was intended, perhaps, to elicit a chuckle in the reader. Perhaps because we’ve all been there, failing to live up to our highest ethical ideals in the midst of a Darwinian struggle for a parking place – or perhaps because we imagine it would be nice to receive such a note from the creep who egregiously stole our spot. The incident from 19 months before clearly still weighed on Ms. Diesenhouse’s conscience, and she felt the need to offer some sort of apology and explanation for her behavior. One hopes that seeing her piece published in The Times helped to ease her guilt and give her a measure of peace.

As an apology, though, this letter falls short by Jewish standards. First, apologies are supposed to be delivered to the person one has offended, rather than merely cast into the ether. It’s hard to believe that the writer thought her apology would actually find its way to the person for whom it was intended – what are the odds? When we genuinely have no way of communicating with the person we’ve harmed, or aren’t even sure if we’ve actually done something wrong, a generic apology, addressed “To Whom it May Concern” may be the best we can do. But in many, if not most, cases, our offenses are committed against people we know, and we’re aware that we’ve fallen short of the person we want to be. The proper Jewish response, in these cases, is direct communication with the one we’ve harmed – in person or in writing. This first step accords dignity and value to the person we address.

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides [1135-1204, Spain], prescribes a four-step process for repairing the damage we’ve done to another:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” repair the damage and appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

The fourth step is derived from a passage in the Talmud: “How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? Rabbi Judah said: When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin again and he refrains from committing it" [Yoma 86b].

The process for apologizing is straightforward, but psychologically it’s far from simple. Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid acknowledging our own wrongdoing. We say we didn’t mean it. We say we aren’t perfect (true, but irrelevant). We say others do the same thing. We cite extenuating circumstances (“I was under a lot of stress”; “I was in a bad mood.”) We blame the other person for provoking us, or for being “oversensitive.” We flat-out deny doing wrong, challenging the other’s recollection of the event. When all else fails, we take refuge in the time-honored claim, “That’s just the way I am.” (“I tell it like it is, even if it offends some people.” “I have trouble being on time.” “I’ve got a short fuse.”) Our letter writer above, for instance, focuses on the difficult time she was going through to explain why she grabbed the parking spot that another was about to claim.

The true focus, when apologizing, should be on understanding the harm we’ve done to the other and taking responsibility for it. Even if the other person was also at fault, we can own our own part in the wrongdoing. A key part of an apology is a genuine effort to repair the damage we’ve done. Simply wishing the other well (or wishing them “good parking karma”) doesn’t make the cut.

In a new and powerful book by Eve Ensler called The Apology, the writer creates the apology she never heard from the father who grievously abused her. She imagines him saying: “I don’t remember ever apologizing for anything. In fact, it was drilled into me that to apologize was to expose weakness, to lay yourself vulnerable. I imagine my vulnerability is in fact exactly what you need from me….I have asked myself, what is an apology? It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.”

The truth is that it takes a strong person to apologize. We are not demeaned when we face up to our own misdeeds, admit them honestly, and earnestly strive to make things right. And it’s only by showing this strength of character that we strengthen our relationships with those around us.  

Yom Kippur calls all of us to look within, to face inconvenient truths, and to reach out, with courage and strength, to offer one of our most powerful human gifts: a full and heartfelt apology.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).