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"Sorry" not enough in Judaism
By JANE ULMAN
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 12, 2000
ENCINO, Calif.--In California, as soon as Gov. Gray Davis signs Assembly Bill
2804, we'll be able to say "I'm sorry" without admitting any guilt
or liability, whenever our sports utility vehicle sideswipes a new PT Cruiser
or our Rottweiler nips our neighbor's fingers.
Yes, we can offer "benevolent gestures expressing sympathy" without
admitting we are even remorseful. This new piece of legislation, which is aimed
at reducing the number of lawsuits, arrives just in time. (There are similar
laws in effect in Massachusetts and Texas.)
For across America, apologies are flying fast and furious--from Atlanta Braves
pitcher John Rocker ("I apologize to all of those my careless and unkind
words have affected") to former game show bride Darva Conger ("I committed
an error in judgement"), from walk-on guests on the Oprah and
Jerry Springer television talk shows to call-on guests on radio request shows.
The words of Brenda Lee's 1960 hit song, "I'm sorry, so sorry," are
more ubiquitous than the words of our national anthem. We don't need a public
forum or incipient celebrity status to join in this apology-fest. We don't even
need to use our own words. We can log onto the Internet to order a personalized
"I'm sorry" song on CD or cassette. Or use the "Apology Note
Generator" to ghostwrite an electronic letter.
But these expressions of regret are no more sincere than the following exchange
that takes place in our house on a daily basis. "You need to tell your
brother you're sorry," I say to any one of my four sons--ages 9, 11, 13
and 16--for any one of these four reasons: a) hitting him, B) hiding his
Nintendo controller, c) calling him a moron or d) destroying his Lego creation.
"Sorry," the offending brother mutters, with as much genuineness as
a house in Celebration, Florida.
But in Judaism, apologies are not about benevolent gestures of sympathy, PR
spin, expediency, public confessionals or grudging obedience to a mother's request.
They are also not--contrary to character Jimmy Gator in the film "Magnolia,"
who confesses his infidelities to his wife as he is dying--about alleviating
the guilt of the offender. In Judaism, apologies are consequential, obligatory
and heartfelt. They are specific, with time-tested guidelines and rules for
repenting the past year's misdeeds.
And they are generally seasonal, taking place during the Ten Days of Repentance,
the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur itself, which this
year falls at sundown on Oct. 8, we apologize to God only for transgressions
between God and ourselves.
As the Talmud states, "For transgressions of one human being against another,
the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another."
Thus, during the Ten
Days of Repentance, we are urged to seek out people we have harmed or offended
during the previous year and to directly, honestly and often uncomfortably admit
We must also--and this is crucial--make amends or restitution. And even after
undergoing this usually painful but psychologically and spiritually uplifting
process, we aren't home scott-free. The Talmud tells us we haven't fully repented
until we are twice confronted with the opportunity to commit the same transgression--and
As Jews, we are born with the inclination to do both good and evil, a yetzer
tov and a yetzer rah. We are also born with free will, which enables us to take
personal responsibility for all our actions and behavior.
But personal responsibility is just that. Personal. As Jews, we are not held
accountable for the sins of our fathers or our children. Ezekiel 18:20 states,
"The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father nor the father
for the iniquity of the son." We are not held accountable for the sins
of our forefathers either.
This year, however, The Hartford Courant, in a front-page article, bravely but
misguidedly apologized for having published advertisements for the sale of slaves
in the 1700s and early
1800s. Yes, slavery was an abhorrent, abominable practice.
And, yes, The Hartford Courant, as well as other newspapers at the time, was
complicit in both condoning and perpetrating the slave trade, which, however
horrific, was legal at the time. But the current owners and editors are no more
responsible for running those ads than I am for the behavior of my Uncle Louis,
a gambler and con man who was arrested in 1933 for his part in a $25,000 swindle.
We can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and predecessors and choose
not to repeat them.
We can teach our children about the horrors of slavery and thievery and the
necessity of empathy, equality and honesty.
We can ensure that other people around the world are not subjected to ill treatment.
But just as President Clinton cannot apologize to the Native Americans for destroying
their civilizations and Pope John Paul II cannot apologize to women for the
burning of witches, so we cannot apologize on someone else's behalf. Such acts
exhibit misplaced magnanimity and demean the victims.
Interestingly, in Hebrew, there is no specific word for sin. The closest is
"chet," which literally means "missing the mark."
Interestingly, in apologizing for our sins, we also sometimes "miss the
mark." Our apologies are too glib or too global, too self-serving or too
centered on blaming others.
The most we can do as we approach the Ten Days of Repentance--the most we're
expected to do--is to deeply and fearlessly examine our own behavior during
this past year, to look strictly at our part in hurting or harming someone.
True repentance begins not with dispensing haphazard and superficial apologies,
but with accepting personal and ethical responsibility for our own actions and
taking the necessary steps to atone and alter our ways.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.
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