A conversation overheard in Grand Central Station, recounted in Kathryn Schultz’s book called, “Being Wrong:”
You said pound cake.
I did not say pound cake; I said crumb cake.
You said pound cake.
Don’t tell me what I said.
You said pound cake.
I said crumb cake.
I actually saw the crumb cake, but I didn’t get it, because you said pound cake.
I said crumb cake.
Well, I heard pound cake.
Then obviously you weren’t listening; crumb cake does not even sound like pound cake.
Well, maybe you accidentally said pound cake.
I said crumb cake.
It feels so good to be right. As “crumb-cake” author Kathryn Schultz says:
One of the downsides of wrongness is this: If I know I’ve been wrong before, it reminds me I could be wrong now – maybe I did say pound cake! And being wrong now might lead me to believe – it could happen again.
We are imperfect. Only with the acknowledgement of wrongness, can we live our lives fully, can we sustain our relationships, can we learn, can we grow.
In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
We cannot be human and always be right. We cannot be human and always do right. The Hebrew word for sin, chet, comes from an archery term – we miss the mark. Tomorrow morning in the Unetane Tokef, we will pray these words to God: “Elohenu melech mochel v’soleyach / God of Pardon and Forgiveness– You do not wish the death of sinners, but urge us to return from our ways and live. You wait for us. If we return, You accept us at once.” Our imperfection does not distance us from God and with tshuvah/repentance, it need not distance us from one another. To sin is to turn away; with tshuvah we turn back. When we go astray the conviction that we can change and improve is the source of our hope to mend and to grow.
Our tradition’s faith in our potential, does not mean that repentance is easy. Our sages provide a guidebook for tshuvah, because they know how hard it is.
A crucial but difficult step when we are wrong, is admitting: we are wrong. Over the next 24 hours in our Communal Vidui/Confession, we will hold each other up as we together list in every way possible, our wrongs – the wrongs we committed, the wrongs our neighbors committed and we enabled, the wrongs every one of us has the potential to commit.
Tonight, I’d like to focus on those tshuvah steps, that address what we ought to do, once we realize that we are wrong, that is, those steps involving apology.
In Jewish tradition, apology is not accomplished by simply uttering the words, “I’m sorry;” it involves a serious process of repentance. According to the great 12th century thinker, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, tshuvah is our path towards taking responsibility for our mistakes, and making a change. Maimonides outlines a process for each transgression we have committed. Here’s what we do. Step 1: Recognize and regret that we did something wrong. Step 2: Articulate our regret and responsibility, in a confession and apology, to the party we 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, don’t make the same mistake– make the change.
If, from public confession to making amends, you see signs of the wisdom of 12-Step Recovery in here, you are not alone. Jewish tshuvah and recovery share profound truths about the transformative power of public confession, apology, repair, responsibility, and our capacity to return to a better path.
To be clear, here’s how not to apologize:
I’m sorry you thought I said pound cake.
I’m sorry that Yom Kippur services are so long!
Now, why are those apologies invalid?
What is the problem, when I say: “I’m sorry you thought I said pound cake?” Apology is not valid if I apologize for your thinking, rather than for my wrong action. Am I owning up to anything there? No- just deflecting responsibility.
Now, what’s the problem, when I say: “I’m sorry that Yom Kippur services are so long?” Actually, there are 2 problems. First, it’s dishonest; I don’t think they are too long, in fact, I wish we could do this all night! Second, if I say I’m sorry the service is too long, it is not a valid apology because, although I take responsibility for the length, I have no intent to change it.
There are countless other inadequate ways to apologize: the apology for something out of my control that seeks just to shut down conflict; the over-apologizing that trivializes responsibility for harm; the very vague apology that misses the point; the apology that is not called for, and dilutes real apologies.
With so many ways to stumble, Jewish tradition guides us to focus on taking personal responsibility and making a change – tradition’s deep wisdom for us to sustain, strengthen, and mend our relationships. As much as apology is about the past, it is about the future.
Some weeks ago, I officiated at a funeral for an elderly man, who never did the work to make amends. His family has granted me permission to tell their story. The man was a violently abusive father. Many people who survive such a scary childhood would understandably — as adults seeking a healthy existence — find their only option to be separation, complete estrangement from their father. But not the case with this family. Incredibly, the abusive man’s children remained in his life. Not the right answer for everyone, but it was the right answer for them, and it blew me away. The family had healed; their extraordinary emotional and spiritual health, and clarity about boundaries, led them to permit the father, to remain in their lives in limited ways, protecting themselves and their own children, but not completely severing ties.
But the father – the father never apologized, he never took responsibility, he never acknowledged he was wrong. Why?– The family has accepted: they cannot know. Perhaps this man lacked the capacity to reflect, to perceive self-truth, to have a difficult conversation, perhaps he was paralyzed with shame. But there was no reckoning, he never held himself accountable, he never truly mended his relationships. So, his relationships with his children, although not severed, could not fully develop. Intimacy could not deepen. There was not growth.
As the Amichai poem teaches — From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring. Relationship, without repair, stagnates. There is not growth.
At the funeral the family found peace, but as we lowered the casket into the earth we all understood, when it came to a deep reckoning, it was too late.
When this man was on his deathbed, face to face with the end of his life, what might have gone through his mind? Did he feel regret? What did he wish he had done differently, since the abuse? We will never know. We only know, he did not take steps to express remorse or make amends.
When we Yom Kippur worshippers, come face to face with the reality of our finitude, what might go through our minds? Do we feel regret? What do we wish we had done differently? What steps do we need to take to express remorse or make amends? Our Yom Kippur death rituals – fasting, the empty casket of the ark at Kol Nidre, white robes… demand we confront our mortality. Death is our deadline; mortality is our reminder that there is a deadline. Its date, unknown. When it comes to apology, making amends, spiritual growth, anything in our lives, we do not have forever. The pandemic revealed what, deep down we already knew: tomorrow is not guaranteed. Tonight is our time to heed that urgency.
The only thing we know for sure is that we are mortal. If you have wrongs you need to right, do not wait!
Most of us have not violently abused family. But we are human, so we have harmed, really harmed others, God, and ourselves, and may have yet to fully address those wrongs.
Our words of prayer: God of Pardon and Forgiveness– You do not wish the death of sinners, but urge us to return from our ways and live. You wait for us. If we return, You accept us at once – our words of prayer compel us to do the work, to return, to ensure we do not become the person who masks self-truth, avoids the difficult conversation, or becomes paralyzed with shame.
In every service throughout Yom Kippur, our ritual includes the Vidui/Confession, and in almost every Confession, the Al Chet, the long list of sins introduced with the words: Al chet shechetanu lifanecha/the sin we have committed against you.
Except, at the very conclusion tomorrow evening, in our Neilah service, the Al Chet sin list is replaced. Instead we pray to God: Atah Noten Yad / You reach out Your hand… You give us the power to turn.
Tonight it’s the urgency of mortality; tomorrow night, it’s the compassion of God’s outstretched hand. Throughout, it’s faith.
Faith that we are not alone—that we are strengthened by, and can turn to God—whatever we imagine God may be. Faith that we can count on one another. Faith in our intention, to be honest with ourselves about our failings. Faith in our potential to repair relationship. Faith in our capacity for change.
Intimacy in our relationships, depends on the fundamental understanding, that we are imperfect. Only when we take responsibility for our wrongs, can we grow, can we return to each other, to ourselves, and to God. This sacred season beckons: Heed the words of our text. Take in the depths of our ritual. With open heart, picture your casket, feel your hunger, speak your confession, do repair.
Elohenu melech mochel v’soleyach / God of Pardon and Forgiveness– Help us to understand deep in our souls: From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.
God of Pardon and Forgiveness—
You do not wish the death of sinners, but urge us to return from our ways and live. You wait for us. If we return, You accept us at once.