I’m troubled by how to translate those Hebrew words lephayeis et chavero, which the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s sixteenth century code of Jewish law, tells us to do on the eve of Yom Kippur. ‘Appease our fellow beings’, ‘propitiate’: the words have a ring of insincerity, as if the important thing were to stop others from being upset with us rather than to address the hurt. That’s why I prefer ‘apologise’ or ‘seek reconciliation’.
The Torah states that Yom Kippur, with its rites and prayers, atones for ‘all our sins before God.’ But no amount of beseeching heaven can short-circuit the need to make reparation and apologise to each other. The notion that Yom Kippur amounts to God offering us a free pardon is false. We have to face our fellow beings whom we’ve hurt.
That means facing difficult truths in ourselves. Even saying a superficial sorry can be hard. ‘They’re incapable of admitting they’re wrong,’ is a not infrequent criticism when someone’s stubborn refusal to concede gets on our nerves, whether in family or political life.
But true apology goes deeper. It’s motivated by the awareness of what we’ve said and done may feel like to the other person. At the time we did it, we were impelled by our own emotions. Now, maybe soon or maybe long afterwards, maybe slowly or maybe suddenly, maybe because a third party tells us, we hear our words from a different perspective. We realise and take to heart the pain we’ve caused. We long to apologise, not because we’ve been told we ought to, or even because we want to clear our conscience, though that may remain a – legitimate – part of our motivation, but primarily because we are truly sorry that we’ve given hurt.
Dostoevsky described humility as the root of all good and humiliation as the cause of much evil. Is apologising humbling or humiliating? I believe it is, or at least should be, the former. It cuts into our pride and self-righteousness, but in so doing it opens and deepens our capacity to listen, our empathy, our moral imagination, our heart. Something is wrong if as a society we perpetuate a moral climate in which saying sorry is always seen as a climb-down, a failure, a form of self-abasement. It’s cruel when people who sincerely say sorry are mocked on social media. There’s dignity in honest apology.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It’s not enough to mutter a general ‘Sorry if I upset you.’ We have to name what we did and apologise specifically and clearly, unless that would cause additional pain to the other person. We’re not entitled to open old wounds, or cause fresh injuries, in order to relieve ourselves of a bad conscience.
If our apology isn’t accepted the first time, the Shulchan Aruch tells us to go as many as three more times, finding a different way to offer our apology on each occasion and taking three people with us as witnesses. Presumably this is to testify to the sincerity of our endeavour, and, if it’s a public falling out, to make it clear that we’ve done our best to put matters right.
If, after all these attempts, our apology is still not accepted, then, says the Shulchan Aruch, eyno zakuk lo, we don’t need…’ It’s unclear whether the lo means ‘it’, that is, acceptance of our contrition, or ‘him’, the person from whom we’re seeking that acceptance. Regarding the latter, Jewish teaching is clear: we shouldn’t be hard-hearted and refuse to forgive, because ‘measure for measure, God is forgiving to those who forgive others.’
It’s hard when our apology is rebuffed. We want to have a clear conscience, but this leaves us troubled. Where do we stand? It’s not dissimilar when we can’t apologise, although we really want to, because the relevant person is no longer accessible to us, or is unaware of what we did and to tell them would inflict new wounds. Sometimes the best we can do is be honest with ourselves, share our remorse with a trusted friend, or speak to God.
There’s a ritual for apologising to those no longer alive; one goes to the grave taking witnesses and says ‘I’ve done wrong before God and you…’ This is an act of truth, an act of love.
But what about all those we can never know we’ve hurt, people who suffer because of our way of life, because we damage the world, because we ignore, or had no time for, their needs. What about the animals? They are sentient too. What about nature?
In the end our apologies need to be like boomerangs, returning to our heart and conscience, telling us to try to do better. They must motivate us to be less blind, less cruel, more generous, more embracing in our empathy, kinder, better people.