The Apology Factor

September 12, 2018

3 min read


Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31 )

Making a commitment to correct our mistakes.

(a continuation of last week's theme...)

A few years ago I learned a valuable lesson about apologies. I was sitting in a classroom and it was a few minutes past the time that the class was scheduled to begin. We were waiting for the teacher to arrive, and when one of my fellow students walked in, I gave him a warm and hearty welcome: "Hello, Alan!"

After the class was over, Alan came up to me and said: "I was so mad at you that I wanted to punch you!"

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

Alan explained. When he walked in and I said a loud "hello," he thought I was trying to draw everyone's attention to the fact that he was late.

Of course, that wasn't my intention at all, and the only reason that my "hello" bothered Alan was because he was feeling self-conscious about his own lateness!

But then I realized: It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong, and whether my insult was intentional or not. The fact remains that I hurt someone's feelings. And for that I must apologize.

The Mechanics of Apology

Next time somebody harms you and then comes to apologize, notice how he does it. There are two approaches people use ― what I call the "sincere apology," and the "selfish apology."

The sincere approach is short and sweet, and sounds something like this:

"I'm sorry I hurt you. I'll be careful to see that it doesn't happen again."

Clean, direct, no excuses. If you'd been hurt, wouldn't you feel better after receiving such an apology?

Next is the "selfish apology." It goes something like this:

"I apologize. But I didn't do it on purpose. I had a hard day and I didn't realize what I was doing. And why are you so sensitive about this, anyway!?"

This person has verbalized an "apology," but it is hollow because they have no regret. They really feel "it's not my fault and I didn't do anything wrong."

The type of apology not only fails to appease the person who was hurt, it actually makes things worse. Why? Because this "apology" is in effect saying:

"The fact that my actions were hurtful to you is not really my problem. And since I don't regret my actions, I will not make an effort to change them. Therefore if a similar circumstance occurs in the future, I would do the same thing and hurt you again!"

What came under the guise of an "apology" actually turns into a great insult.

Positive Effects of Apology

Apologizing can be a difficult, humbling experience. We may feel vulnerable, low and bad.

But it doesn't have to be this way...

Imagine your jacket got stained. Of course you have to take it to the cleaners. But do you feel depressed when your clothes are stained? Of course not! You know that a stain is not a permanent part of the fabric.

Judaism says it's the same thing when we make a mistake. Our soul is the garment that gets stained. And we have to clean it. But making a mistake doesn't mean I'm inherently a bad person! In fact, the Talmud (Yevamot 79) says that a sense of shame is essential to the nature of a Jew.

A distinction needs to be made between "unhealthy" and "healthy" guilt. Unhealthy guilt is where you feel like a bad person. Healthy guilt is where you maintain the sense that you're a good person, while acknowledging that you used bad judgment and made a mistake.

Think back to a time you apologized. How do you feel afterwards? Cleansed! Getting it out is an expansive, cathartic, liberating release. We cleanse the stain and recapture that lost purity. We rectify the past and move forward.

Feeling in the Air

This week's Parsha begins: "You are all standing here today before God" (Deut. 29:9). Allegorically, this is referring to Rosh Hashana, the day when every Jew stands before the Almighty and takes a long, hard look at who they really are.

This is the time of year to make a commitment to correct our mistakes. God is "close" at this time, and as the verse in this week's parsha says: "God will remove the barriers from your hearts" (Deut. 30:6).

There's a feeling in the air. Let's use it!


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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