Apology: The Time is Now

by Rabbi Jill Maderer  (Kol Nidre sermon delivered 9/27/09)

“This evening I let my emotions get the best of me,” Congressman Joe Wilson said in a statement to the press. “While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”

“I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt,” rapper Kanye West said to Jay Leno.  “I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong. Period. But I need to take some time off and just analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life, how I’m going to improve.”

The worlds of sports, entertainment and politics have shared an interesting focus during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month that precedes the Days of Awe: transgression and apology.  As the media and public opinion determine whether these apologies will ingratiate fans and constituents, we can determine: What would Maimonides say?  Although the unfolding of the scandals has become entertainment, Congressman Wilson and Kanye West’s statements actually include details that demonstrate the Jewish path to repentance. 

In Jewish tradition, apology is not accomplished by simply uttering the words, “I’m sorry.”  I’m sorry you had so much traffic when driving to synagogue tonight!  True, I regret the fact that there was traffic.  But it’s not really my responsibility, and there is nothing I plan to do about it, so it’s not a true apology.  I’m sorry that Yom Kippur services are so long!  I do take some responsibility for the length of services.  But I don’t plan to significantly change the service length. Without the intent to change, it’s not a true apology.

In Jewish tradition, apology does not exist in isolation; it involves a serious process of repentance.  According to the great 12th century thinker, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, repentance, or tshuvah, is our path towards taking responsibility for our mistakes, for our relationships, for our lives.  Maimonides outlines a 4-step process for each transgression we have committed.  Here’s what we have to do.  Step 1: Recognize and regret that we have done something wrong.  Step 2: Articulate our recognition and regret in a confession and direct apology to the party who was harmed.  Step 3: Commit not to repeat the deed– that is, commit to change.  Step 4: When faced with the opportunity to repeat the deed, in fact, behave differently, don’t make the same mistake– make the change.

So how did Joe Wilson and Kanye West measure up to Jewish standards for apology?   

On September 9, during President Obama’s address before a joint session of Congress, Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted the president’s speech, and yelled out “You Lie!” in reference to the coverage of illegal immigrants, in the proposed changes to healthcare policies. 

Fulfilling the first step of Maimonides’ repentance, Congressman Wilson recognized and regretted that he did something wrong, as he indicated in his statements that the comment was inappropriate and spontaneous.

Wilson’s accomplishment of repentance-step-2 is much more complex.  He articulated his recognition and regret in public statements, but that’s not important to Maimonides.  Here’s what’s important: Congressman Wilson called the White House the same night, and apologized to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel .  The next morning, Wilson apologized directly to President Obama.  According to the president, the congressman apologized quickly and without equivocation.  Joe Wilson succeeded in his accomplishment of the apology to the president.            

Now, this step of repentance is complicated by 2 details.  First, Wilson has stated to the press the fact that Republican leaders had requested he apologize to the President.  By identifying other people’s wishes as a motivating factor, Wilson appears to be taking full responsibility for his speech interruption, but only partial responsibility for his decision to apologize. 

The second complicating detail involves the request of some members of the House of Representatives.   These colleagues insist that Wilson violated House rules intended to protect a culture of the free exchange of ideas.  They requested that he offer a formal apology in a session of Congress.  Wilson refused.  If you believe that not only the president, but also the Congress, was directly harmed by Wilson’s outburst, then he has not completed the second step of apology.  If you believe that Wilson’s outburst was a direct affront only to the president, then he has succeeded in his apology.

Joe Wilson fulfilled Step 3, the commitment to avoid the same offense in the future, when he voiced his intent to move forward with civil discussion.  As for Step 4, whether Congressman Wilson chooses to heed his intention is still unclear.  Whether he will act differently next time, can only be assessed in the future.  I think Maimonides would say that Congressman Wilson performed well in his efforts towards apology.

On September 13, at the MTV Video Music Awards, during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, hip hop superstar Kanye West rushed onstage, grabbed her microphone and blurted out a compliment to singer Beyonce Knowles, who had lost out in that category.

Although most media has counted 4 apologies, Jewish tradition would offer a different assessment.   Within 24 hours, Kanye West offered the first 2 apologies on his blog, and the third apology on The Jay Leno Show.  But apologies 1 through 3 were not made directly to Taylor Swift; therefore, they were not really apologies at all.  Even so, these public statements did fulfill the first step of repentance: West did recognize and regret something he did wrong. 

Kanye West fulfilled the second step of repentance when called Taylor Swift directly, and apologized.  Now, the gesture only happened after Taylor Swift publically noted that she had not received a direct apology.  So some people have wondered: did West’s apology hold any less weight because Swift had practically suggested it?  Judaism says, no.  Sometimes, when we wrong someone, we are slow to realize how we can best make amends.  Sometimes, when someone wrongs us, they need for us to tell them, how they can improve the situation.  And that’s fine, as long as we take the necessary steps to repair the harm.  

Has Kanye West committed to refraining from such behavior again?  On the Jay Leno Show he expressed his intent to determine how he can improve.  He has also offered to do anything he can, should Taylor Swift ever want his help in the future.  So West appears to be committing to a change in behavior.  Will he succeed in refraining from rudely hijacking the spotlight, when another opportunity comes his way in the future?  Cynics have doubts, because this is not the first time West has stolen a spotlight or rushed a stage.  Of course, isn’t it true that for many of us, repeated misdeeds or habits are the focus of our repentance and change?  It is possible that Kanye West will be able to change his ways—only time will tell.  I think that Maimonides would say that rapper Kanye West performed well in his efforts towards apology. 

I believe Joe Wilson and Kanye West’s processes can shed light on our understanding of Jewish repentance; however, there is a glaring distinction.  Wilson and West are public figures.  Their notoriety means that even the private direct apology, has the potential to earn public favor.  Although both Wilson and West achieved success in apologizing in a direct and timely manner, they are experiencing motivating factors, that just don’t exist for most of us.   Those of us who don’t have the pressure of the media, the government or the entertainment industry, expecting us to make an apology, might not act as swiftly as did Wilson and West.  Those of us who are not virtually required to apologize immediately, might easily allow weeks, years, even decades to pass before making amends.

A few years ago, Rodeph Shalom began to offer a new tradition.  A segment of the Yom Kippur afternoon service is now called “Voices in the Congregation,” where a few congregants are selected to share some seasonally-appropriate thoughts.  Last year, one of the speakers shared a particularly powerful story of his struggle with an incomplete repentance.  The man recalled a time, decades ago, when he was at the local pizza parlor playing video games after school one day.  He witnessed a group of big, tough, anti-Semitic bullies attack a yalmulke-wearing Jewish boy.  He watched, horrified and petrified, and did nothing.  He was not the perpetrator of the offense, but decades later, this man still feels ashamed of his inaction.  So, what should he do?

First of all, he should know, he is not alone.  Many of us continue to face regret for our deeds, years or decades later.  Is it ever too late for repentance?  Is it ever too late to say “I’m sorry?”  Jewish tradition says:  No.  That’s why we have the High Holy Days.  Yom Kippur does not exist for the purpose of having us annually delay amends until September.  These Days of Awe exist because we are human, and sometimes we will neglect problems we need to repair.  For those unresolved issues, this annual reminder is not here to tell us: It’s too late.   The annual focus is here to tell us: It’s time.  Tradition’s deadlines do not serve as a reason to let ourselves off the hook; they serve as a push towards repentance.  Weeks, months, decades later, it is time to make amends. 

Now, it might not be too late to make amends, but the longer we wait, the better chance we won’t have the opportunity.  What happens if the person we offended is no longer available to receive the apology, because they are unreachable, un-findable, or deceased?  How do we apologize, and how do we move on?   Jewish tradition prescribes a direct apology to the person we offend; no one else can accept the apology and offer forgiveness on behalf of someone who died.  So, what does tradition suggest we do, when we don’t apologize in time? 

When we don’t have the opportunity to repair one thing, we should find something else to repair.  We ought to find an opportunity, today, to mend a relationship, do a mitzvah, add some more righteousness to this world.  And let it be a reminder for the next time: we don’t put off mending relationships.  We don’t put off repentance.  There is no need to wait until High Holy Days next year. 

Avinu Malkenu: Inscribe us in the Book of Forgiveness.  Avinu Malkenu: Inscribe us in the Book of Life.  Avinu Malkenu: Inscribe us in the Book of Deliverance and Redemption.

Inherent in the High Holy Day liturgy is the understanding that we are imperfect and we have the capability to do better.  In all of Jewish history and memory, all the way back to the Torah, flawed characters transgress, and then turn to a better path. 

Maimonides weaves together all of Jewish tradition to create a detailed prescription for repentance.  But the core of Maimonides’ approach is personal responsibility.  In these days of repentance we rededicate ourselves to taking responsibility for our mistakes and our relationships, for our lives and for our world.

Each of us takes full responsibility for our own repentance.  Not even God can do our repentance for us.  We read a quotation from the Mishnah, in the prayerbook: “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone, until they have made peace with one another.”

Makor Chayim, Source of Life:  Inspire us to realize the time is now.  May we take responsibility for our transgressions.  And may we reach out, to make peace with one another.  Amen.