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The Hardest Word in the World

Apologies are difficult enough, because they render a person vulnerable; whether we like it or not, apologies are an implicit admission of guilt, and few people like to admit they’re guilty. 

Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

October 6, 2022
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This week, a friend confided in me that she experienced one of the hardest Yom Kippurs of her life. When I asked what happened, she recounted the following: 

Last month, she and her husband had endured a bitter fight, and he hurled harsh words at her. She was stunned and deeply hurt. But after a few days, they attempted to make amends, if only for self-preservation and survival, because no one wants to live with a perpetually angry spouse. Cursory apologies were offered on both sides. 

And then, the High Holy Days approached. My friend was certain that her husband would apologize to her in a more meaningful way during the critical ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Return (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah). But now, with 30 minutes left until the start of Yom Kippur and still no heartfelt apology from her husband, my friend was flooded with disappointment. 

“I wanted to move past it; I actually wanted to forgive him,” she told me. “I wanted to respond to his apology with the word, ‘mechilah’ [forgiveness]. But I never received the apology. I felt like I was left to forgive him on my own. That’s asking too much of anyone.”

And so, she struggled to swallow the final bites of her pre-fast meal, which felt like jagged lumps in her throat. She lit her Yom Tov candles and, through tears, recited the short formal prayers, then begged God to forgive her, not for her sins from the past year, but for entering the holiest day of the year with such a resentful heart. 

It’s a hard story to read, made even more difficult by the fact that many of us have felt bitterly let down by someone who we feel still owes us an apology. But this story is also relatable because each one of us probably has yet to apologize to someone we’ve hurt, knowingly or otherwise.

Maybe because it’s so difficult to apologize, during the High Holy Days rabbis can make the process of apologizing look rather easy and straightforward. But one of the hardest words to utter in any language is “sorry.” 

Maybe because it’s so difficult to apologize, during the High Holy Days rabbis can make the process of apologizing look rather easy and straightforward. But one of the hardest words to utter in any language is “sorry.” And what are we left with when someone who has hurt, embarrassed or otherwise wronged us doesn’t apologize? 

There are those who forgive the person anyway, because it’s easier to let things go. Such people often don’t assign meaning to the fact that they didn’t receive an apology. They don’t assume the worst—that another person is deliberately withholding an apology. Instead, they put a priority on self-preservation and shedding the heavy burden of resentment.

Of course, I’m also aware that these days, the very idea of apologizing has become contaminated. If you apologize to a vengeful person, the apology can be weaponized against you as further proof of your guilt.

The post-apology punishment can be so harsh that there’s little incentive to apologize because we know we’ll be punished even further. In today’s unforgiving world, an apology is tantamount to conceding defeat. It’s the antithesis of everything Judaism teaches about compassion and forgiveness. 

Apologies are difficult enough, because they render a person vulnerable; whether we like it or not, apologies are an implicit admission of guilt, and few people like to admit they’re guilty. 

In the jungle of social media, even a heartfelt apology can be an invitation for abuse. For true “justice” to prevail, the perpetrator is asked to disappear into oblivion in what can best be described as career and personal house arrest. 

I’m so grateful that God doesn’t cancel humans the way we cancel each other. 

If apologies don’t “work” anymore, what are we left with? And what happens if we don’t accept an apology? I asked Los Angeles-based Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld if Judaism mandates that we’re obligated to accept an apology. 

“We’re obligated to forgive if it’s offered genuinely,” he said. “But a person has to seek out someone they’ve wronged. If even a heartfelt apology isn’t accepted, there has to be a second and third attempt. If you’re still not forgiven after the third time you apologize, you’re released from the responsibility (if your apology was sincere). The onus now shifts to the other person.”

With regard to asking for forgiveness, Judaism seems obsessed with sincerity, and for good reason.

With regard to asking for forgiveness, Judaism seems obsessed with sincerity, and for good reason. “Many times, apologies are cursory,” observed Seidenfeld. But we should apologize sincerely for two reasons: “First, we apologize selflessly because we’ve hurt someone. Second, we apologize selfishly, or as I call it, ‘soul-fishly,’ because who wants to carry that burden with them? Energy embeds itself.”

In recent years, social media, especially Facebook, has made it almost laughably easy to issue blanket, zero-risk apologies. These usually take the form of, “I apologize to anyone I may have hurt this past year.” 

Of course, it’s both harder and more meaningful to personalize an apology and be specific rather than hypothetical. When someone actually knows that they’ve hurt me, it’s hard to hear an apology that states, “If I did anything wrong to you, I’m sorry.” That’s not a real apology; it’s a cop-out.

Yes, God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t have the power to forgive us for hurting others. Only we can do that. In the most extreme case, God cannot forgive someone for murdering another person; the victim is no longer alive to forgive anyone. 

Seidenfeld likens the human experience to lighting Shabbat candles. “It’s true that we light because we want to bring more light into our lives, and to reveal the light we feel intuitively within us,” he said. “But it’s also true that when we walk by a flame, even a simple motion causes the flame to flicker. That’s us in our own lives; as we’ve crossed paths with others, we’ve caused flames to flicker, negatively or positively, and we must become more sensitive to our interactions with other people.”

I don’t have all the answers. And as my husband and I try to raise small children, we sometimes hear apologies that are blatantly forced and even sarcastic: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when my kids angrily shout, “I’m sorry!”; it’s even worse when they add, “Can we go now?”

Seidenfeld taught me that a famous Jewish saying beseeches us to do teshuvah the day before we die. “But the obvious question is, ‘Wait. I don’t know when I’ll die. So what does that mean’”? he asks. “It means do teshuvah every day. Be in a perpetual state of examining what you do.” 

Ultimately, he said, teshuvah is “the most divine gift” we’ve ever received, because it holds “the ability to undo, commensurate with how sincere we offer our apology.”

May all our apologies be sincere, and may we have the courage to both make them and accept them.


Tabby Refael is an award-winning LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael

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