On Blanket Forgiveness Statements

Posted on September 17, 2010

Just before Rosh Hashanah I wrote about my aversion to blanket “if I’ve hurt you, please forgive me” statements as a method of teshuvah (which technically means “return” but is often used to mean repentance, as in a return to G-d). I am not alone.
Maimonides first outlined the steps of teshuvah, steps that one must go through to fully return, whether the thing you’re asking forgiveness for is between you and G-d or between you and another person. But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to let Bev and Sara talk, in this excerpt from Strength to Stand:

    Sara watched from her peripheral vision as Eli approached David and then led him out of the house, the look on her husband’s face like that of a boy about to be taken out to the woodshed. The door closed behind them and she let out a deep breath. Maybe Eli could pound some sense into him.
    She stood and stretched, then set the book down on the sofa and went to the kitchen. “Okay, put me to work,” she said to Bev.
    “Uh uh,” Bev said, shaking her head and chopping a head of broccoli into smaller florets and collecting them in a bowl. “I cook tonight. You relax. Don’t think I don’t know who’s been keeping us in clean towels all week.” She stopped and looked at Sara. “Or you can stay here and keep me company.”
    “I can do that.”
    “Good.” Bev returned to her chopping. “You want to tell me what happened Shabbat morning?”
    “Not really.”
    Bev reached for a scrubbed carrot and began slicing it on the diagonal, creating long, thin strips. “Okay. You want to tell me why David’s been in the doghouse for three days?”
    Sara picked up a broccoli floret that had fallen on the counter and put it in the bowl with the others. “There are five steps to forgiveness in Judaism, right?”
    Still slicing carrots, Bev looked thoughtful. “Hmm. I thought there were three.”
    “David gave a sermon this past fall about forgivenessteshuvah. I remember he was nervous that it sounded too preachy, which I thought was kind of funny. It all tied into a bigger picture about how we need to make teshuvah for ourselves, not only for the person we’ve wronged, how forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting, and how not forgiving can keep us from moving forward in our lives. He really put a lot of himself into that sermon.”
    “It sounds like it.”
    “He worked on writing it for over a month. As good a speaker as he is, he gets anxious about the High Holy Days and actually starts practicing, like he’s in speech class all over again. I must have heard that sermon a dozen times.” She stared at the growing mound of sliced carrots. “I wish he’d done a little less practice delivering it and a little more practice doing it.”
    “Hasn’t he apologized?”
    Sara ticked the steps off on her fingers. “According to his sermon, first you have to recognize that you did something wrong. Then you have to decide you’re not going to do it again. Third, you confess what you did and fourth, go to the person you wronged and apologize. And last, you take steps to keep it from happening again.”
    Bev stopped slicing and wiped her hands on the white dishtowel hanging from the oven handle. She looked at Sara. “Okay. I think when I learned it, one and two were combined and three and four were combined. So why is David still in trouble?”
    “He did apologize. He admitted he wasn’t listening to me with an open mind and that he rejected anything I said that wasn’t already in his perception of how things should be regarding the shul and my role in it. But we never resolved it. I’m waiting in limbo, and since he seems to think that my forgiveness will solve everything and we can go back to being a happy family without ever addressing my needs, I’m not ready to forgive him yet. How can I if the problem that started it all is still there and still unsettled?”
    Bev sliced a jicama in half and set one half-sphere aside. “You need to give him a chance to redeem himself, Sara. Maybe he needs your forgiveness before he can consider your needs without a guilty conscience.”
    “Maybe. But it would be much easier for me to forgive him if I knew we’d work toward a solution. Right now I’m afraid if I forgive him, he’ll think things are all better and we’ll never address my role. Or worse, we’ll wind up repeating Saturday night.”
    “You might have to tell him exactly that,” Bev said, stripping the fibrous brown peel off the turnip-like vegetable. “He may be able to recite the steps of teshuvah backwards and forwards and upside down, but Sara, he’s a man. The male brain sometimes needs to hear these things explicitly stated. And occasionally repeated. Slowly.”
    Sara laughed. “I guess I was hoping it was as clear to him as it is to me.” She watched Bev slice the jicama into half-inch wide shavings. “What do you think Eli’s saying to him?”
Bev pursed her lips. “Oh, I don’t know. They have a really deep friendship. Well, you know that better than I do. Eli doesn’t have any really close friends in Spokane. He has lots of distant friends, and I mean lots. But his nickname for Davidwhen he calls him ‘bro’he doesn’t take that lightly. He’ll do right by him.”
    Sara turned toward the voice. Jonathan was standing in the dining room, looking forlorn, a clump of orange Play-Doh in his hair and smaller bits clinging to his clothes. She managed to stifle a laugh. “You need some help cleaning up, Jonathan?”
    “Judy did it. She didn’t like that I poked a hole in her turtle so she smooshed it on my head. She got a little off the plastic you put down, too.”
    “And why did you poke a hole in her turtle?” Sara asked calmly.
    Jonathan shifted his feet. “’Cause she took all the orange and I got green. She says orange is a girl color and green is a boy color, but I like orange better.”
    “Does that make it okay to destroy something of hers?”
    “No.” Jonathan hung his head. “But if she gave me the orange like I asked, then I wouldn’t have gotten mad. It’s her fault her turtle got a hole.”
    Sara glanced at Bev. “Time to put that first step of teshuvah to work.”


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