On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we must make our peace with one another. The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law composed by Joseph Caro in the middle of the sixteenth century in Safed, devotes a whole section to this difficult subject.
We should apologise even if we only hurt the other person with words. If we caused them loss or other quantifiable harm, we need to make good. If our sincere apology is not initially accepted, we should offer it a second and a third time.
To withhold acceptance of an apology is considered hard-hearted, unless the wrong inflicted on us is grievous and beyond healing. Even then, though, says the Shulchan Aruch, it is an act of mercy and kindness to receive an honest and remorseful apology with good grace. It is worth remembering Nelson Mandela’s counsel that to hold on to resentment and bitterness is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting our opponent to die.
I’m often asked what to do if it’s difficult or impossible to offer our apology face-to-face. We want to come clean with both the person we have hurt and with our own conscience. But sometimes that person is not accessible to us.
If he or she is no longer alive, the tradition is to speak our heart at the graveside. If life has driven us apart through a painful shared history no one is eager to revisit, or if we have uttered disparaging words but the other person is not necessarily aware of this, we can only speak truth to our own heart and to God, or to a trusted friend, and resolve to learn for the sake of the future. What we are not entitled to do is to hurt another person further (‘You may not remember, but…’) in order to salve our own conscience. Life, sadly, usually has unfinished business.
All that said, this is not primarily the way I feel about these days before Yom Kippur. Rather, I experience them as precious days, days of appreciation. I think about my family, especially my wife and children. Somehow, the heightened sense of life’s fragility, of the brief, wonderful, uncertain privilege of time, of each holiday and ordinary day shared, deepens my awareness of them. What goes through my heart is gratitude, the wish to acknowledge what I owe to them, and to my friends, to my community, to tens of people whom I have encountered, whose poetry I have taken to heart.
Apology follows, in thought more often than word. I regret the ways I have hurt you.
I imagine my reactions are typical.
Then our ‘I’m sorry’, flows from love as in Naomi Shemer’s song ‘I haven’t loved enough’: ‘I haven’t told you, appreciated you, given back to you or life, enough’. Thus sorrow and remorse become part not only of contrition but of blessing, for a beautiful but deeply challenging world which urgently needs our faithful loving kindness and enduring care.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah