When saying sorry, don’t just speak–act

Last week, I betrayed a trust.

It was accidental, a seemingly small, ordinary mistake rooted in simple human forgetfulness (and perhaps a speck of carelessness if I’m being honest about it), but a mistake that nevertheless affected a friend’s life in a serious way. I felt awful, so I did what little I could to repair the shattered trust: I apologized sincerely. I promised myself I wouldn’t slip up again. And, when saying sorry didn’t feel like enough, I wrote a check.

Donating money to my friend’s favorite charity wasn’t designed to win her forgiveness or absolve my responsibility. That may be beyond my reach. But it was an action that I hope reinforced to both of us the seriousness of my regret. I may never erase that wrong, but doing some amount of good in her honor felt like a step in the right direction, a reminder to keep trying amid and despite moments of personal failure.

In Judaism, a sense of justice rarely ends at apology alone; it’s laced with action, too. Admitting mistakes to oneself and to others helps maintain the social glue that keeps us able to function as a community. But written Scripture and oral tradition also demand a moral and legal reckoning for putting wrongs to right. Concepts such as tikkun olam, or repairing the world through just action, go hand in hand with virtues of apology to God and to our fellows. Together, these ideas interlock into a pattern of behavior that’s often held aloft as the paragon of an ethical Jewish life: Doing the right thing not to reach some higher echelon after death, but for the sake of goodness alone.

To me, the ancient and modern actions that buttress apology — settling a fine with livestock, cooking someone their favorite treat or donating funds electronically — aren’t just punitive. In fact, I’ll argue that capping off an admission of guilt with a kind gesture can do as much for the “transgressor” (to use the language of the High Holy Days) as it does for the wronged. The way I see it, attempting to correct a mistake has the added effect of mentally repaving the principled path we’re meant to follow year-round — as Jews, yes, and as ordinary people, too. 

The moral math I’m proposing isn’t exactly tit-for-tat. Does buying a few extra boxes of Girl Scout Cookies make up for speeding off after tapping a car in a crowded parking lot? Of course not. How about holding open a door for someone after snapping at your parent or spouse? Not a chance (but hold the door anyway). 

Whitewashing bad behavior with good doesn’t do enough to address the initial complaint, especially when there’s an opportunity to smooth things over one on one, as uncomfortable, awkward and clumsy as that discussion may be.

In traditional Jewish belief, asking for forgiveness from the person we impacted is the only way to adequately settle the score, but we have no control over the outcome of that exchange, especially if the degree of hurt is more severe than “sorry.” What if they don’t forgive? And are placating words really enough?

Think back. Has there been a time of true remorse in your life that you’d rather spackle over than leave exposed? I’m guessing that for many, doing something the wrong way leaves a mark on us as well as on the person we’ve mistreated, intentionally or not. If you feel unworthy after extending the olive branch, like I did, now is the time to telescope your apology into something bigger. Engaging in a selfless act, such as picking up a shift at the local food bank, could help soothe your damaged sense of self while also doing right by someone else.

Every fall, the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays offer a framework for admitting personal and collective wrongdoings. I take comfort in their formal, ritualized mechanism for expressing contrition: the vocal admission of all the not-so-nice things we humans are capable of, and the chest-tapping that physically warns against our baser instincts.

Together, we may not have embezzled great sums from our workplace or “run to do evil,” but the sentiment is clear: You may not have done this, but you’ve probably done something.

A central tenet during the High Holy Days season is the Hebrew word teshuvah. It embraces the concept of “returning,” and is a kinder, gentler alternative to the more prescriptive, condemning idea of “atoning” for one’s sins. Teshuvah invites us to return to blameless behavior and to pick up where we left off, forging the best version of ourselves we can possibly be. But what of our “sins,” which still lead back to us like a trail of blackened breadcrumbs? These cannot be returned. Unable to go back, to sweep away past actions we’re ashamed of, we must do our best to step forward.

It pains me to admit that my uglier instincts aren’t as straitjacketed as I’d like them to be. Every week I seem to behave in ways I wish I hadn’t, snapping at people who don’t really deserve my ire, or acting selfishly when it wouldn’t kill me to be a bit more patient and generous. I suspect I’m not alone. We hear it all of the time: Humans are fallible creatures, prone to rampages of egotistical self-importance, and bound up in micro-dramas of daily life. But I can’t help but think that if, after apologizing, we start to counterbalance bad deeds with better ones, then we again silence our ever-escaping demons and again encourage ourselves to live the right way. And if, in the process, our homes, our relationships, our neighborhoods benefit, then I wouldn’t apologize
for that. 

A California native, Jessica Dolcourt has nurtured a lifelong passion for Jewish issues and writing. She also writes about technology for CNET.

Vote Generates Mix of Hope, Wariness


Edna Bar-Or wants to be optimistic about the prospects for peace after this week’s Palestinian elections, but like many Israelis, she is not sure she can.

“I very much hope it will bring good,” said Bar-Or, 55, surrounded by stacks of laundry and hangers full of pressed shirts at her dry cleaning shop. “I want to be optimistic, but I don’t think anyone knows what will be.

Israelis followed news of the Palestinian Authority elections Sunday, pausing to listen to radio and television news broadcasts and to read newspaper front pages plastered with large photographs of Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen. Yasser Arafat’s former deputy won the vote by 62 percent and will become the next president of the Palestinian Authority.

The low-key, silver-haired Abbas, who has repeatedly spoken out against the armed struggle of the intifada, appears to be a leader Israel might be able to negotiate with. Abbas’ moderate comments give Israelis a measure of hope that his election could be a historic turning point, but they know an uphill effort lies ahead for Abbas.

“I’m not jealous of him at all; he has so many problems to handle,” Bar-Or said.

Israelis, like the Palestinians, are keenly aware of the tall order that lies ahead for Abbas: uniting security forces to crack down on extremist Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, renewing peace efforts with Israel in an effort to achieve the Palestinian goal of independent statehood and instituting reforms to quash corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials said it was in Israel’s interest for the Palestinian elections to go as smoothly as possible. Army bulldozers removed roadblocks throughout the West Bank to ease freedom of movement for voters, and international observers said movement was relatively unfettered.

The army also stopped operations across the West Bank with the exception of the villages in the area where an Israeli soldier was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting and four others were wounded over the weekend.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel hoped for a smooth election process “so that starting from tomorrow, the new Palestinian leadership will be able to do what it is required to do.”

Shalom said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio, “I think that the leader who is elected will have to wage a genuine struggle against terror immediately,” adding that Israel expects a “new, different Palestinian leadership that will be prepared to move in the direction of peace.”

But some Israelis remained unmoved by the potential for change following the death of Arafat two months ago.

“Do you really think these elections will mean something?” asked David Weinberg, a Tel Aviv lawyer as he walked past the memorial marking the spot where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was slain in 1995. “Anyone with half a brain can see this is the same group of terrorists. Maybe some people see change, but Abu Mazen says he will start talking; he is not saying he will actually do anything.”

Weinberg also said he had little faith in the new Israeli unity government set to take power this week.

“I only see more of the same continuing, and maybe even worse things to come,” he said.

Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, doesn’t expect Abbas to be able to make a breakthrough peace deal with Israel. Karmon views Abbas as an ideologue like Arafat, who will not press for major changes.

“I think only a younger leadership that grew up in the West Bank and Gaza will be able to reach a compromise with Israel,” Karmon said.

But Abbas could be a partner to short-term progress in such moves as a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Karmon.

Israel also will have to take stronger action against Hezbollah, which is carrying out an increasing number of anti-Israel attacks from the West Bank and Gaza, Karmon added, if Abbas is to have a chance of helping forge a more peaceful period.

David Ohana, a professor of Israeli history at Ben-Gurion University, sees in Abbas a Palestinian leader with whom Israelis finally can imagine negotiating.

“Arafat was a myth and Israelis could not speak with myths,” Ohana said. “Arafat symbolized the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in black and white, so it was easy not to see the gray.

“The most important thing about Abu Mazen,” he added, is that “he is not a picture or myth but he is a human being.”

Abbas also dresses like a European leader, and looks like someone who could be a neighbor, he said.

Ohana said Israelis are about to face the first challenge.

“I think this is a test case for us first of all, not the Palestinians. If we want to solve the problems, we have here an opportunity,” he said.

Afu Badawi, 48, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, works at a falafel stand making pita bread. Working the pita dough, his hands covered with flour, he said Abbas will have to make some tough choices if he wants to succeed.

“He needs to do the right thing for his people, to focus on rights, the economy and make sure everything is free of corruption,” Badawi said. “Otherwise, he will just be a continuation of Arafat.”

Golan Shiri, 30, who works at a different falafel restaurant, is skeptical that Abbas will be able to do anything at all.

“Abu Mazen can want to make changes all he wants, but does that mean he will really be able to make a difference?” Shiri said. “It’s not so much up to him. It’s the warlords who really control things, not the officials.”

Shlomo Tenami, a 58-year-old office clerk, also has little hope that an Abbas victory will lead to a revolution in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I hope, but I don’t have a lot of hope, because we have tried so many times before,” Tenami said. “Every time we give them land the violence just continues.”


For the Kids

Nuturing Nature

Last week, we learned not to cut down the fruit trees of our enemies in times of war because, as the Torah says, the trees are “not our enemy.”

In this week’s parshah, Ki Tetze, the Torah continues its compassionate attitude toward nature’s creatures: Do not pull a baby bird out of its nest when its mother is around. If you have to do it (because you need to eat) do it when the mother is away from the nest.

It also reminds us to help — not ignore — an animal that has fallen down in the road. The Torah says to always be considerate and think about how your actions will affect the people and creatures around you.

Poetry Corner

Liat Chesed, 71¼2, of Los Angeles, writes:

I like to grow trees.

They’re beautiful and so green.

I plant and I plant.

I feel like a tree.

A Yiddle Riddle

Rabbi Levy was getting ready for synagogue in the month of Elul. All of a sudden, he heard a car honking its horn. He looked outside and there was a limousine with a driver parked outside his house. He realized that his students had misunderstood his request.

What had the rabbi asked for and what did his students bring him instead? (Hint: Two similar words — one in Hebrew and one in English.)

Send your answer to kids@jewishjournal.com .

The winner will receive a gift certificate to Baskin-Robbins.

Rosh Hashana 5763

So, what do math and Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, have in common. On this day, Jews are supposed to do a cheshbon hanefesh. This literally means “accounting of the soul.” We count up and categorize all the actions we’ve taken, and all the thoughts we’ve had during the year: How many good? How many bad? How many generous? How many selfish? How many useful? How many just a waste of time? Then we decide which actions and thoughts we want to repeat and which we will throw away.

Rosh Hashana celebrates the birthday of the world. The Jewish, or Hebrew calendar follows the cycle of the moon. The English or Gregorian calendar follows the cycle of the sun. Both calendars are divided into 12 months. A leap year in the English calendar happens every four years, when an extra day is added at the end of February. In the Jewish calendar, an extra month is added every three years. And guess what? This year’s Jewish calendar is a leap year! That means that there will be two months called Adar.