“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . . do you forgive me?” A dear friend of mine told me of a common source of amusement engaged in by children on the playground when she was growing up in Israel. In Judaism, it is believed that when we commit an act against another human, it is our responsibility to apologize sincerely and to seek forgiveness. If we do that three times and the person we have harmed is still unable to forgive us, then we are considered to have sufficiently atoned. The kids at play are, of course, not sincerely apologizing and expressing remorse; and, although we may not have seen this little game enacted on the playground, we have likely been on the receiving end of similar apologies. We may have heard the words, “I’m sorry” without feeling any truth or substance behind them. When that happens to me, I am aware that the apology has little to do with me or with my pain; rather, it feels as though the other person is just performing some obligatory ritual, saying the expected words instead of truly attempting to make amends.
“‘You don’t make peace only with God. You make it with people. Sin isn’t global. It’s personal. If you do wrong to someone, the only way to fix that is to go to that same person and do right by him.’”
These words are spoken by a character in Jodi Picoult’s fascinating novel The Storyteller (pages 188-189), a tale of one guilt-ridden man’s attempt to atone for abominable wrongs he committed earlier in life. They indicate that, although Spirit can forgive us for sins we commit that do not involve other humans, only those against whom we have spoken or acted have the capacity to forgive us for those transgressions.
And it is during these days that we are called to tie up all those lose ends of the previous year, to devote time and effort to making amends and seeking forgiveness for those very personal wrongs we have committed during the last twelve months, so that we may begin again, having atoned and received forgiveness.
So . . . just how do we do all that anyway?
Professor Everett L. Worthington Jr. has created a lovely little mnemonic devise to help us remember what he considers to be the essential components of an apology (see his book A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing Without Excusing Injustice for lots more helpful information on the crafting, use, and benefits of apologies):
C = Confess without excuse
O = Offer a sincere apology
N = Note the other person’s pain (i.e., empathy)
F = Forever value the person (i.e., say directly that you love the person and want to reconcile)
E = Equalize (i.e., offer to make restitution)
S = Say “never again” (and mean it)
S = Seek forgiveness (i.e, ask directly)
The foundation of this apology system is very clear and simple: we open to feel the effects of our actions, we take responsibility for them, we repair the situation in any way possible, and we vow to not act in the same way again. The most essential aspect of this list, and what is missing from the playground “apologies” is sincere repentance.
In short, a turning. A turning toward the truth of what has happened and acknowledging it fully, a turning away from the harmful words and actions of our past, and thus a re-turn to our divine essence.
Indeed, “return” is the literal meaning of teshuva, the practice and gift at the root of these Days of Atonement. Through examining our actions, apologizing, making amends, and being forgiven, we return -- to our true nature, to God, to oneness with those we have hurt and with all other beings.
his sense of “turning” is also found in our word “apology, which combines apo and logos, two Greek stems. Because apo means “away” and logos means “speech,” apology is often used to refer to a speech we make in defense of ourselves. There are countless literary and political examples throughout history. And many apologies today feel just like that, like speeches made to defend ourselves.
There’s much more nuance, however, when we realize that apo is mostly used to describe turning away from something, often in a very physical sense. And logos denotes not just speech but something much more elemental: thought or meaning.
So when we apologize, we turn away from not only our words and actions that have caused separation but from whatever was underneath them as well. Having examined them carefully, we become aware of the initial places of “missing the mark,” the places where we have become confused about our oneness with God and one another. Only then are we able to right that wrong and be restored to that experience of oneness.
We turn: first toward our behavior to fully examine it, then away from it as we promise to amend it, then we return to our true nature . . . again and again.