Teshuvah and Controversy: is the relationship causal or casual?

Posted on September 8, 2010

So here it is just before Rosh Hashanah and I’m about to create some controversy. Maybe. For the two people who still read my blog (Hi there!). But maybe this is good and well-timed, like so few other things in my life, so maybe it will work out.

Okay, here goes. You know how lots of people post generic “If I have hurt you in the past year, I’m sorry” statements on blogs and Facebook statuses (stati?) and email and all manner of mass-directed communication?

I hate those. I really do. It is at or near the top of my Rosh Hashanah Pet Peeve List. And I’ll even tell you why.

Yes, you could go back into my childhood where, by the ripe old age of seven, I developed an intense interest in religion and was shocked by the idea that some Christians — nice Christians who lived in my neighborhood, even — did all kinds of things the church considered sinful, then went to church on Sunday and said a forgiveness prayer with everyone else, while the pastor said they were forgiven because 2,000 years ago the Romans executed one of many, many thousands of Jewish “troublemakers” and he forgave them so now everything’s peachy and they can go do whatever they want now and just go get forgiven again on Sunday.

You could go back there, and I’m sure my odd view of comparative religions as a seven-year-old might play a factor. But you might get an even better view of why this is such a pet peeve if you were to have been a fly on the wall during a particularly powerful conversation with my mother (aleha hashalom). Confronted, rather politely in fact, with an overwhelming amount of evidence that her acts of “discipline” were far more likely to succeed in casting calls for “Mommy Dearest” and not in teaching children anything like what she’d intended, she admitted to all such acts, offered a few of her own that I didn’t know about, and then proceeded to say, “I know I did these things. I know I could have made better choices. If I’ve hurt you, I’m sorry.”

How do you fess up to years of what most states in the country define as abuse and then say, “If I’ve hurt you, I’m sorry”? If I’ve hurt you? If?

Whatever the source, these “blanket apologies” are not apologies. Any apology that is a form of an if-then statement is not an apology. (If I’ve hurt you, here’s a generic sorry. If not, please ignore this message. You decide which camp you fall in.) No, that doesn’t work for me. That’s a cop-out. That’s an end run. That’s just wrong.

Actually, what that is is a way to avoid facing those you’ve hurt, and looking for all the world like you’re still apologizing to them. But in my view, you’re not. Not yet.

A true apology means that you have to talk to the person (not in a text message, not on Facebook, not through Twitter, not in an email, even worse in a newsletter or some other formal communication) and tell them that you’re sorry and for what. That’s the key. If you don’t know why you hurt me, how can you avoid hurting me again? If I don’t tell you what I’m apologizing for, how do you know which action I regret and am trying to mend?

A blanket statement (If I’ve hurt you in the past year, I’m sorry. We good? Case closed. Let’s grab a beer.) may look good on the outside, but it does nothing to actually mend a relationship harmed. Not until you go to that specific person and offer a specific apology for a specific event, will that harm truly be repaired. The rest is all window dressing.

And if I have harmed you in the past year? Well, if I’ve given you a specific apology about a specific harm and you’ve accepted it, let’s go get a drink. If I haven’t yet, I might have forgotten, or I might not even know that you were hurt, in which case I wouldn’t want you to have to make due with a blanket apology. Let me know what I did to hurt you and I will do my best to apologize and make sure it doesn’t happen again. And then we can put it behind us and grab a beer. (Why beer? I don’t even drink beer!)

To everyone else, may you have a joyous and peaceful New Year, filled with fun, food, and memories, and surrounded by people you love. Shana tova, k’tivah v’chatimah tovah.

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