Too many people think that they have done their duty by apologizing for their insensitive remarks to and about others, wrongs committed against others and acts of omission towards family, friends and co-workers when they say “If I hurt you, I am sorry.”
THAT is NOT an apology. Full apologies are not conditional, especially when it is clear that we have actually hurt another human being deliberately or even by accident.
A full apology sounds like this –
“I hurt you when I did such and such. I know it. I am truly sorry because I should not have done it. Please accept my apology. I hope you can and will forgive me. What else can I do to make it up to you, to wipe the slate clean and to begin again together to restore your trust in me?”
THAT is an apology because it is unconditional, direct, specific, full hearted, and humble.
The often-used “if I hurt you” does not do a number of critically important things. Those who want to fulfill the mitzvah of making amends and going to people they have not hurt, just to cover themselves and seem to be pious, saying, “If I did anything this year to hurt you, I apologize” are acting in a silly and unnecessary manner. I encourage people not to do this.
Second, the above “apology” is not real until full unconditional verbal confession is made.
Third, such “faux-apologies” (i.e. “If I hurt you”) leave in the mind of the recipient an unsatisfied feeling that the apology was never in fact made because it wasn’t. Consequently, there is no possibility from these words of a true reconciliation.
In a true apology, the act itself must be acknowledged and verbalized – such as:
“I did not call you when you were very ill. I know that as family/friend/colleague/co-worker that hurt you. I am sorry and apologize.”
Or – “I spoke ill of you to others, and it got back to you. I should not have succumbed to l’shon ha-ra (evil speech) and I know I did a terrible wrong. I also know that I hurt you and destroyed the trust we had built up together, and I deeply regret it. I want to make this right and I am willing to go to those to whom I said those things and take them back, and when I do I hope you will forgive me so we can restore trust between us.”
Or – “I flirted with another man and I know that I violated our relationship, and that I wounded you. I regret the flirting and I regret hurting you. I want to restore our relationship of trust. Please forgive me and help me do this.”
Those are full hearted and complete apologies because they include acknowledgement of the bad act and its emotional impact on the victim, verbal confession to the individual, a desire to give compensation of some kind, and a willfulness to restore the relationship.
To do all this requires that the doer feel vulnerable and a measure of shame and then demonstrate courage in owning up. Those who have persuaded themselves that they are always in the right have the greatest challenge before them, and those who live with such people are often frustrated because though they know the truth, the person who thinks he/she is always right and always the victim when it is not the case rarely takes responsibility for him/herself. I suggest that such people need effective psychological counseling to help them gain greater self-insight, of which they are sorely lacking.
This is the season for us to pause and examine what we do (cheshbon hanefesh) and how what we do impacts others for better and worse.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (i.e. Maimonides; RAMBAM), in the Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance) wrote the following:
“What is teshuvah? It is when a wrong-doer abandons his sin and removes it from his thoughts, and resolves in his heart not to do that deed again… And he must confess in words these things that he has resolved in his heart.” (2:2)
“It is very praiseworthy for the penitent to confess publicly and announce her sins, and reveal to others the transgressions she committed against her fellow… Everyone who is arrogant and does not reveal but rather conceals her sins – her teshuvah is not complete…” (2:5)
“Even if one only injured the other in words [and not in deed], he must pacify him and approach him until he forgives him.” (2:9-10)
“What is complete teshuvah? When one comes upon a situation in which she once transgressed, and it is possible to do so again, but she refrains and does not transgress on account of her repentance.” (2:1)
Very few people have mastered their yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). Jewish legend relates that there are only 36 completely righteous people in the world (the lamed vavniks). Everyone else – i.e. all of us – struggles to do right and to return to those we love and care about, to Torah, to Judaism, and to God.
I wish for everyone well and success this year in your self-examination during the remaining days of Elul and during this coming High Holiday season.