September 23, 2015
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Since I have two sisters and parents who were determined to raise polite children, I have been apologizing for small things for as long as I can remember. In fact, my parents have been regularly reminding me to apologize to my sisters since I was too young to know what apologizing really was. I grew up hearing variations of: “Rachel, please tell Anna that you’re sorry for barring her from your dance party,” and “Rachel, please tell Leah that you’re sorry for saying you are a much better Disney princess than she is,” and on and on. Apologizing for the nearly constant offenses that are a part of growing up with siblings left me with a strong ability to shout “SORRY” over my shoulder but was unfortunately not enough to curb my sense that I had actually been right in all of those situations and that saying that I was sorry was simply the price I had to pay to move on.
The first time I remember actually having to examine my behavior, understand that it wasn’t acceptable, and then offer a real and sincere apology was in 5th grade. My fifth grade Sunday School teacher, in an effort to be nice, allowed all of us to pick our own seats. I, of course, chose to sit next to one of my good friends, and we proceeded to be obnoxiously talkative. We both felt safe and entitled at Temple and didn’t understand that our misbehavior was causing untold stress for our teacher and was disrupting the class for the rest of the students. His repeated requests for us to be quiet went unanswered as we simply continued to enjoy our conversations. All of this came to an end one evening when my Sunday School teacher called my parents to share with them that my friend and I had been talking far too much and that he would appreciate it if they could help me remember to be quiet in class. They immediately apologized to him and then sat me down with what I would come to think of as their, “This is serious, so please listen,” faces. They told me about the phone call that they had just received and asked me if I was in fact being disruptive in class. I still remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was nerves and shame and disappointment. It was the physical embodiment of the moment when I realized that something I had done without any thought had actually hurt someone else. It was awful. Fortunately, my parents had a plan to help me atone for my mistake. They sat me down at the kitchen table with a piece of loose leaf paper and a pencil and told me to write a letter to my Sunday School teacher in which I named the specific things that I had done wrong, apologized for them, and then promised to do better in the future. It was an excruciating exercise that forced me to examine my actions from a different perspective. Writing that letter made the bad feeling in my stomach worse, but I was surprised to find that when my parents made me walk into my classroom on Sunday morning and hand my letter to my teacher, I actually began felt better. What I didn’t know then is that I had just had my very first lesson in the difficulties and power of atonement.
I think one reason for our resistance to the word “atonement” comes from our discomfort with the first steps in the process of atoning: identifying our mistakes and then apologizing for those misdeeds. The steps after those, making recompense and changing our behavior to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future, are difficult as well, but ultimately, they come much more easily once we’ve conquered those first two, difficult steps. So, why are identifying our misdeeds and then offering sincere apologies so difficult for so many of us? I believe that our struggles come from our failure to be reflective, empathetic and humble, and finally, emotionally vulnerable.
Being reflective is not an easy task. All of us are busy. We’re driven, overcommitted, and overwhelmed and don’t have time to sit back and reflect. In truth, the idea of setting aside time at the end of the day or even at the end of the week to think back on our actions, our successes, and our failures, feels impossible and ridiculous. We have so much to do, and we need to maintain our forward momentum which isn’t just pushing, but is hurtling us toward our futures. Our perceived inability to spend time reflecting on who we are and how we have acted is unhealthy and unhelpful for those of us who wish to better ourselves. How can we question whether we’re on the right path or whether we’ve made missteps along the way if we are already throwing ourselves into the next task or decision. It is crucial that we intentionally leave ourselves time to be reflective. And, it is crucial that we model this behavior for our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, and all of the children of our congregation. We must use holy days like Yom Kippur to step outside of our commitment to maintaining forward momentum and to ask ourselves if we like how we got here. The time to reflect on our choices, our actions, and our paths, is something that Judaism has literally built into the yearly calendar, and it is one of the greatest gifts that we could have ever been given. It is the first step toward atonement because it allows us to take stock of our lives.
Of course, simply reflecting on our past is not enough to successfully atone. The next step is to review our behavior not just objectively but empathetically. Empathy is a skill that must be practiced and maintained. If we lose our ability to empathize, we’ll be unable to accomplish this first task of atonement- identifying what we need to apologize for. The absolute opposite of empathy is self-righteousness. When we are convinced of our own correctness, we trample on and dismiss other people’s feelings and senses of self. Think of the magic of stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. For the audience, comprehending the fact that the villain of the Wizard of Oz is the hero of her own story is an exercise in empathy because it asks us to open our minds and hearts widely enough to understand that our first experiences in Oz were far different when seen through someone else’s eyes. Empathy requires us to put down the question of whether or not we are right to examine the journey instead. Maybe we are right, but we are not good. Maybe we are wrong, but we have behaved well. Empathy helps us see past right and wrong to the deeper levels of behavior and character. Empathy requires us to be humble and to reject the idea that we are the center of the universe and therefore the one who defines all experiences. It is only when we reflect on our behavior with empathy and humility that we will be able to identify what we would do differently if we were given the chance. It is only when we are reflective, empathetic, and humble that we can acknowledge that we may owe others apologies.
And, having said all of that, even if we are able to discover which actions or decisions need to be apologized for, most of us will still struggle to take the next step toward atonement: actually apologizing. I think what makes apologizing so difficult is fear. When we apologize, we are intentionally making ourselves emotionally vulnerable to someone else, and that can be terrifying. When we take the time to understand our mistakes and to offer our sincere apology to someone, we are essentially putting our future relationship into their hands. Whether or not our friendship or relationship continues or what it looks like as it goes forward is now dependent on whether the wronged party accepts or rejects our apology. In that moment, it can feel as if asking for forgiveness has put us into a passive place where we lack control and are therefore vulnerable. And, that is a scary position to be in. Scary enough to often keep us from apologizing at all.
The only way to counter our fear is to accept and embrace the fact that asking for forgiveness isn’t a weak position. It’s a strong one. By asking for forgiveness we are showing our partner, sibling, parents, children, friend, teacher, student, etc. that we take our relationship seriously enough to spend time and energy on reflection and empathy. By apologizing, we are showing them that we are self aware and secure enough to admit that we have acted badly. By apologizing, we are saying to them that we trust them enough to not only expose our faults but to name them and to promise to do better. Yes, we may feel vulnerable, but we should also feel empowered. Apologizing takes guts and conviction, and it is an important part of maintaining healthy and balanced relationships.
Atonement, the act of identifying our mistakes, apologizing for them, and then working to make up for them while avoiding repeating them is serious business. It’s not for the faint of heart. It demands maturity, empathy, humility, and vulnerability, and it will make each of us stronger human beings, more loving partners, and better friends. On this Day of Atonement, I pray that all of us will take the time we need to take the next step toward this weighty but worthwhile goal. The process may be difficult but the rewards are absolutely worth the work. And just in case you need them, I’ve got extra pencils and loose leaf paper in my office. Feel free to stop by.