Part of the lead-up to Yom Kippur involves asking people you’ve hurt, accidentally or deliberately, for forgiveness. And our texts offer lots of advice about how, when, and why to say we’re sorry.
But what if you’re the wronged person? What if you’ve spent weeks or months or years seething? What if you’ve been waiting for too dang long for an apology that seems not to be forthcoming? Can you ask for that apology? Demand it? Be super-duper-Jewish-mother-cliché-passive-aggressive about it?
Let’s ponder what Jewish tradition has to say!
Our classic texts brim with musings on the art of apologizing and forgiveness. What we want for ourselves and for others is to engage in real teshuvah (literally “return”)—an about-face on all we’ve screwed up. David R. Blumenthal, professor of Judaic Studies at Emory, notes that teshuvah involves five things: Recognizing your own wrongdoing (hakarat ha-chet), feeling remorse (charata), desisting from the sin (azivat ha-chet), making restitution when possible (peira’on), and confessing (vidui). (There’s debate—of course there is, because we’re Jews—on what order these elements should come in.)
To continue the parsing fun, there are three ways to beg forgiveness: mechila, selicha, and kappara. Mechila is what most of us think of when it comes to Yom Kippur traditions: approaching friends and family and asking for forgiveness for anything you might have done to distress them in the past year. And if there’s something specific you know you did, you gotta name it. We Jews can be a legalistic, nitpicky people, and mechila—from the rabbinic Hebrew root mem-het-lamed—means “remitting a debt.” The delightful Hebrew linguistics site Balashon notes that the root word can also mean “to wipe out” or “to strike.” It almost sounds like contract language, no? In his wonderful book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, Rabbi Irwin Kula notes that mechila can indeed be legalistically dry. It needn’t be a big emotional megillah. It needn’t even be heartfelt. It can just be a polite ritual (“I’m sorry” “Oh, no problem”) and the debt is paid. Even if the apology is meh. Honestly, pro forma apologies are what most of us are engaged in during the High Holiday season.
Selicha, on the other hand, is a bigger deal. Kula calls it a process rather than a moment in time. Selicha means “forgiveness,” and it requires hard work. When we want someone to apologize to us, what we generally want is for them to understand how deeply they’ve hurt us, to grovel, to prove to us that they’ve delved into the darkness of what they’ve done. For us to be able to grant forgiveness, though, we may have to struggle, too. “Often we emerge stronger, clearer, and wiser when we wrestle with forgiveness, no matter the outcome,” Kula writes. “Even if reconciliation occurs, it doesn’t mean the relationship continues where it left off.”
Selicha, it seems, requires that we embrace imperfection. It’s a bit like the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing cracks in pottery with gold. The cracks are still there. We still see them. But they become part of a new, strong, beautiful thing. The fact that the piece has been broken becomes simply part of the object’s history—it still has value.
Part of the art of repair can indeed involve telling someone they need to apologize to you. Kula notes: “Sometimes we need to be rebuked in order to understand that we have to ask for forgiveness.” Asking for an apology means telling the other person that they’ve cracked your vessel. “We all know the famous verse from the Book of Leviticus that says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” Kula writes, “but few remember that this intuition begins with the following words: ‘Rebuke, rebuke! Criticize your neighbor, but do not hold a grudge in your heart.’”
But is it really possible to “rebuke, rebuke” in such a way that the other person will hear our pain and respond appropriately? Can rebuke bring us to a place that lets both parties, or even just the person demanding an apology, rebuild and repair? “An essential part of loving is critiquing,” Kula writes. “This is especially important to remember when we feel we’re nurturing an injury, when our resentment is keeping us from living fully, or when it’s stunting the growth of a relationship. It’s incumbent upon us to criticize when we feel the person could benefit from our doing so.” You may succeed in helping the other person grow. You may not. But if you can do the work of self-reflection, and say what you have to say without requiring a certain response, you might find yourself feeling healed.
Finally, let’s ponder the third kind of forgiveness—seeking, kappara. That means “atonement.” Its root is in the very name of this holiday: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “In psychological language, it’s an inner experience of return, of feeling whole again,” Kula writes. “We literally have a sense of expansion, of tremendous relief and elevation.” It’s the trippy feeling we get at the end of a 25-hour fast. It wipes the slate clean. No cracks. Complete perfection and purity. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes: “Forgiveness is up to the victim (and the victim alone). Atonement is up to God.”
In an interview, Ruttenberg pointed to a Talmudic precedent for asking for an apology: Yoma 87a, which states, “It is related that when Rabbi Zeira had a complaint against a person who insulted him, he would pace back and forth before him and present himself, so that the person could come and appease him.” In other words, Rabbi Zeira made himself available so that the other person could easily apologize to him, and perhaps made it clear (via theatrical flouncing hither and yon) that he was hanging out in front of the person’s face, waiting for … something.
And yes, we should give people the opportunity to apologize to us, if we think there’s any hope of growth for either party. “We want to cultivate a world in which we can say ‘I am hurt,’” Ruttenberg said. “We want to create the space of the empathetic curiosity of I-Thou. Sometimes in relationships there are mutual bad habits, and you ping back and forth at each other. I’m not talking about situations in which there’s abuse and gaslighting, with the guilty party trying to make the other party feel responsible, but there are times when someone does harm but is also able to do the work of listening and hearing.”
She continued: “Part of the fact of human nature is that sometimes we cause harm and we’re not aware. Maybe we were focused on our own stuff and didn’t realize our actions had an impact on others. Maybe we were so deep in our own baggage we weren’t attuned to someone else’s. Sometimes the behavior that warrants an apology comes from a place of ignorance—say, someone can be trying to connect but they’re microaggressing all over somebody.”
Our texts, Ruttenberg said, urge us to give others the benefit of the doubt. “We’re helping them do the work of teshuvah that they need to do, by making them conscious,” she said firmly. “Maybe you’ve walked away with scars and they don’t even know it. You can let them know the scars are there. You can help them grow by giving them the opportunity to make it right. But hoping that another person can rise up to meet you opens you up to the possibility of being hurt even further. Still, you can give people the opportunity to show up. A supergenerous way to handle it is to say, ‘I’m holding onto this thing from last month or last year. Let me tell you and let me give you some time to think about what I’ve said.’ Sometimes people need a minute to process and really hear the other person.” (Indeed, there’s research that too-hasty apologies come off as less sincere than apologies that take a little longer.)
The upshot here: You have to think about what you want when you ask for an apology. Are you furious? Are you on the attack? The other person is likely to respond defensively, and you won’t get the resolution you’re looking for. “The work of this season is about repair,” Ruttenberg said. “If what you want to do is offload your pain, that’s going to bring a different result than if you’re coming to someone because they’ve harmed you and you want to give them the chance to fix it.” Repair and retribution are very different things. Think about the other person’s perspective when you ask for an apology; they may feel that you’re the one who’s in the wrong.
Choose your words carefully; if someone blurts out an apology just to get away from you and end the conversation, they won’t mean it, and you won’t be satisfied. (But if it makes you feel better, “An apology to get someone off your back is not halachically OK,” Ruttenberg said.)
A further question: If you’re demanding an apology despite having no intention of forgiving the person, what’s your goal, exactly? Are you hoping that they’ll fall to their knees sobbing, begging to be allowed back into your good graces, admitting that they suck? This is, in the real world, unlikely to occur. The Mishneh Torah says that a penitent person should “cry out in tearful supplication” to God, give charity and “distance himself exceedingly from the thing wherein he sinned … to completely change his conduct for the good and straight path,” and also “exile himself from his place of residence, for exile atones iniquity, because it leads him to submissiveness and to be meek and humble-spirited,” which would be totally awesome and satisfying, but yeah, good luck with that.
What’s more likely is that the person will a) lash out at you or b) apologize half-assedly to get you to stop talking. Maimonides, who had a way with metaphors, noted that if someone apologizes without making a conscious choice to change, they’re like someone entering a mikveh while holding a dead lizard. They’re not going to get clean. And you’re not going to feel better. (Sense a theme here?) And they won’t make better decisions in the future. They may go on to hurt others just as they’ve hurt you.
But, if you’re able to consider that you and the other person might both be at fault, and perhaps you both can apologize, you’re on stronger ground. As Tablet’s Adam Kirsch recounted in Daf Yomi a while back, “Once Rabbi Yirmeya insulted Rabbi Abba, so he ‘went and sat at the threshold’ of Abba’s house, seeking to apologize. While he was sitting there, Rabbi Abba’s maid accidentally poured out the sewage onto Yirmeya’s head. When Abba heard about this, he went and sought Yirmeya’s forgiveness. Each rabbi was eager not to be put in the wrong by refusing to apologize.” Ah, the healing power of sewage. Would it be possible, do you think, for you and the person you want to apologize to both say you’re sorry? With you taking the lead? With no sewage?
Or maybe, just maybe, you’re the one who’s more at fault? Maimonides chided, “It is an utter sin to tell a baal teshuvah [literally “owner of repentance”], ‘Remember your previous deeds,’ or to recall them in his presence to embarrass him. This is all forbidden. We are warned against it within the general category of verbal abuse which Torah has warned us against as Leviticus 25:17 says: ‘A man should not mistreat his colleague.’” So … is it possible you’re the one holding on to the reptile?
Look, if you’re in a fury, and hoping for an apology despite knowing on some level it won’t be forthcoming or won’t be as satisfying as you’ve dreamed, maybe you’re just better off imagining the other person dead. In another Daf Yomi tale, a butcher insulted Rav, and Rav went to the butcher’s shop to make up with him. (Even though it wasn’t Rav’s fault!) But when the butcher saw Rav, he said, ‘Go, I have nothing to say to you!’ Suddenly a bone from the animal the butcher was chopping up shot off the table and crushed his throat. And he died.
You can do your own self-inventory, ask for an apology, and hope you get the resolution you seek. But if you think it’s unlikely to end satisfyingly for you, you can always hope that heaven will provide for you as it did for Rav.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.