Tradition Today: Saying I’m sorry

The forgiveness of God is the last act that allows us to overcome feelings of guilt, which can make life unbearable.

Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur 390 (photo credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters)
Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur 390
(photo credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

Several years ago I received a long letter of apology from a gentleman I had neither seen nor heard from for some 40 years or more. He had been a member of a congregation I had served then and he described something that he had done at that time – the specifics are not important – something he was certain had hurt me very much and had been wrong on his part. This had been bothering him all those years and he finally had summoned up the courage to write me and explain what had happened and ask my forgiveness. The truth of the matter was that I had absolutely no recollection of the incident he described and I do not think I had been hurt by it when it happened. Of course I replied to him and told him that he was certainly forgiven for it and should not feel bad about it.

I often think about that letter when we approach Selichot services before Rosh Hashana. It made me aware of how important it is to ask forgiveness and how difficult it is, as well as realizing what a powerful role guilt plays in our lives. In truth that incident, which had meant nothing to me, had poisoned our relationship then – even though I did not realize it – and had placed a burden on guilt on him for decades after we had parted company, since I left that congregation and would probably never see him again.
Selichot – prayers of forgiveness – are recited by Sephardim the entire month of Elul and by Ashkenazim generally only several days before Rosh Hashana, the main Selichot service taking place on Saturday night, usually very late in the evening.
The time and the setting make for a profound impression of the importance of asking forgiveness. These particular prayers are aimed at attaining God’s forgiveness and seek to assure us that God is a merciful and forgiving God. Were that not so there would be no point in asking for forgiveness.
The so-called “13 attributes of God” are recited and repeated because they above all make that point, speaking of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger… forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin and acquitting…” (Exodus 34:6-7). In order to emphasize that fact, for liturgical usage the biblical verses are truncated at the end so that they read “acquitting” rather than “yet not acquitting from all punishment,” which is how the verse actually concludes!

The forgiveness of God is the last act that allows us to overcome feelings of guilt, which can make life unbearable. What should not be overlooked is that God’s forgiveness cannot be attained for actions against other human beings unless we ask their forgiveness. As the Mishna states, “For sins between humans and God, Yom Kippur atones. For sins between humans and other humans, Yom Kippur atones only when one has appeased his fellow” (Yoma 8:9). It is all too easy to forget that and to simply repeat Selichot prayers and feel satisfaction.

It is more difficult to actually turn to someone and admit that you have wronged them in some way and then ask for forgiveness. That is best done immediately after the wrong has been committed, but if not then, this season of repentance is the appropriate time. As that letter demonstrated, it is never too late to say “I’m sorry.”
Just as we have an obligation to ask forgiveness, so too do we have an obligation to forgive if the apology is a sincere one. In the words of a meditation said before Yom Kippur, “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me and have done me wrong… as I forgive and pardon them, so may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me.”
And so, in this column, appearing as Selichot approaches, let me conclude by asking forgiveness if I have hurt or slandered anyone by word or deed over this past year. May we all enter the New Year free of sin and free of guilt.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).