September 18, 2019

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.