It’s hard to apologise and it’s difficult to let go of hurts. Maybe that is why the Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 606) that ‘on the eve of Yom Kippur we must make peace with one another’, reminding us that ‘Concerning sins between person and person Yom Kippur does not effect atonement unless one has made up with them’. The idea is not that we should reserve our apologies and keep our quarrels burning until the last night before Yom Kippur, but rather that if we have been unable to bring ourselves to do so until that moment, this is the time to make our peace.
The basic principle is simple: we cannot seek atonement and expect God to forgive us if we have not at least tried to put right the wrongs we’ve done each other. There is no such thing as taking a shortcut past those persons we’ve hurt in the (false) assumption that God will wipe our conscience clean.
There are occasions when we are only too ready to admit that we’ve been wrong. If we see in the face of someone for whom we really care that what we’ve just done has inadvertently really hurt them, there will be nothing in our heart more urgent than to heal the sorrow we’ve engendered.
But often it’s hard to apologise. We have to recognise and admit out loud that we’ve been wrong. (The Shulchan Aruch insists that, unless it would upset the other person, we need to be specific in our apologies, not just waive a general ‘sorry’ branch.) We need to face the fact that we’ve caused pain. We need the humility to concede that we, too, make mistakes and say and do things which are not right.
Sadly, society often makes it harder to apologise. The motor insurance slogan ‘Never admit fault’ has spread far beyond the roadside. If we apologise, are we going to risk being sued, considered generally incompetent, or made to lose face before others? This encourages self-justification, which is a natural tendency, but dangerous if it penetrates the soul.
Nevertheless, most of us want to feel at peace with each other; we wish to carry neither the burden of guilt at having hurt others, nor that of anger and resentment at having been injured ourselves. Yet what if there is no one to apologise too? If the person we have hurt is no longer alive says the Shulchan Aruch, go to their grave and confess in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten, who then respond ‘You are pardoned and forgiven’. But I’ve never met anyone who has actually done this. And what happens if we’ve lost contact with the person we hurt? Or if what gnaws at our conscience may long have been forgotten by them, or they never knew in the first place that we’d hurt them? We are not entitled to unburden ourselves at the cost of further suffering to the other party. In these situations we can only talk truth in our heart, perhaps share our anguish with a trusted fried, and tell God. There may also be acts we tragically commit for which the burden of responsibility and guilt cannot quickly be removed, and for which we may suffer. Even then, though, we are taught to believe in the power of inner remorse and change.
If it’s hard to apologise, it can be even more difficult to forgive. Again, often we want to do so: the relationship matters far more than the offence, of which we are quickly ready to let go. But what if we’ve really been hurt, if we’ve been bad mouthed, or betrayed? There are many matters in life which take more than the twelve months between one Yom Kippur and the next to digest, let alone pardon.
Nevertheless, there are two matters to bear in mind. Mechilah, ‘pardoning’, does not mean forgiving and forgetting, unless the matter was trivial (as so many of the things we get upset about actually are.) Rather, it entails acceptance of what has occurred, and the readiness to move from anger and blame to an attitude of shared learning from the experience. What happened is still there in the history and reality of the relationship, but we have moved from resentment, or suspicion, or alienation, towards the endeavour of healing.
Secondly, just as we don’t want to be burdened with guilt, we don’t want to end up being weighed down, or worse, inwardly poisoned, by bitterness. We may have been deeply wounded and unjustly treated, deliberately by other persons, or by God or life itself through the portion we’ve been dealt. But it matters for our own sake to try eventually to forgive life in so far as we can. There are few endeavours which are harder.
May we find the courage, humility and generosity of spirit to be at peace with one another as we stand before God this Yom Kippur, and through the years ahead.