sermon: Yom Kippur 5777 - Nefesh Service

The Art of The Apology

Ryan O’Neal is well aware: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But does it really?

The fact is that we need to say we’re sorry, and we need to say it often. And that’s what this day, Yom Kippur, is all about. Only when we seek and grant forgiveness can we feel the true holiness and glory of this holy season.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” a dying Ali MacGraw tells her beloved Ryan O’Neal in the movie “Love Story.” Two years later, in the movie “What’s Up Doc,” Barbra Streisand repeats the very same words to Ryan O’Neal, and this time the actor responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”

As moving as the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is, it doesn’t make for good living or good relationships. The fact is that we need to say we’re sorry, and we need to say it often. And that’s what this day, Yom Kippur, is all about.

We need to say we’re sorry to a partner or spouse, to children, to parents, to siblings, to friends, to colleagues in the office, to the stranger whose foot we step on while filing into our seat at the movie theater, and even through pantomime while driving.

Perhaps more than any other word, “sorry” is the glue that keeps our fractured society together. But it’s also a word that we stumble over. Sometimes we stew over a disagreement for weeks before we muster the strength to say, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes we don’t apologize because we don’t know what to say and don’t want to make things worse by not apologizing well.

And then there’s the apology that’s not really an apology. As we look around, public figures seem to have perfected the art of unaccountability. There a so many ways to do this. This summer, as an example, Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medal winner who claimed to have been robbed by men identifying themselves as police officers, issued an apology for his behavior in an episode that cast a pall over the Olympic Games.

The apology came as testimony emerged from other American swimmers challenging Mr. Lochte’s initial version of events. In sworn statements to investigators, the other swimmers described Mr. Lochte, 32, as drunk and unruly, saying he had damaged property at a gas station and later misrepresented what happened. Ultimately, the swimmer tweeted an apology for “not being more careful and candid in how I described the events.”

Then there’s the “if apology,” a classic sorry/not sorry apology. Here’s my all time favorite, going all the way back to 1992. Then-President Bill Clinton got mired in the if-apology for what he did or did not say about the mafia in a taped telephone conversation. Then-Governor Mario Cuomo exploded over a transcript which quoted the President saying the Governor “acts like” a mafioso.

In response, the President Clinton offered this apology: “If the remarks on the tape left anyone with the impression that I was disrespectful to either Governor Cuomo or Italian-Americans, then I deeply regret it.”

Governor Cuomo zinged right back with “What do mean, ‘if?’”

This time of year is our annual “I’m Sorry Season.” So this morning we’re going to explore the art of the apology.

So why are people so bad at apologizing? I think one reason our feeling embarrassed by what we did. Making a genuine apology means admitting to ourselves and another person that we messed up and made a mistake. Quite naturally, I suppose, we have a desire to avoid going there.

But Moses Maimonides, in Hilkhot Teshuvah (‘Laws of Repentance’), teaches that acknowledging embarrassment is a key to real repentance.

כֵּיצַד מִתְוַדִּין. אוֹמֵר אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם חָטָאתִי עָוִיתִי פָּשַׁעְתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ וְעָשִׂיתִי כָּךְ וְכָךְ וַהֲרֵי נִחַמְתִּי וּבֹשְׁתִּי בְּמַעֲשַׂי וּלְעוֹלָם אֵינִי חוֹזֵר לְדָבָר זֶה.

How does one acknowledge sin? One says, ‘I implore you God. . . . behold, I regret (what I did) and am embarrassed by my deed. I promise to never repeat this act again.’

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: “Hilkkhot Teshuvah” 1

Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that apologizing is hard because you must…

Give up your self-image of being morally innocent, together with any defenses that you may have established to reinforce that self-image. This step is very hard on the ego.

To truly turn away from your error, Rabbi Dorff says, we also must “give up any moral claims to the effect that [we] were in the right after all. This step requires [us] to relinquish [our] superior moral position in the argument, thus dramatically diminishing [our] status and power in the relationship with the person [we] have wronged.” An unwillingness to give up that power and status often hinders true teshuvah.

Here’s what not to do. Frontiersman and congressman Davy Crockett, who, although in the wrong, was not in the mood for real teshuvah. Crockett was viewing a menagerie exhibition in Washington, D.C. with friends and was pointing out with amusement the similarity between the features of a monkey on display and those of a congressman, who happened to be standing right behind him. “I guess I should apologize,” Crockett began, “but I don’t know whether to apologize to you or to the monkey.”

So what does a real apology sound like? Dr. Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has spent years studying acts of contrition and finds that apologies need to contain these four elements: “full acknowledgment of the offense, an explanation, genuine expression of remorse, and reparations for damage.”

Step number one: fully acknowledge the offense. Failure to do so, Dr. Lazare reports, is the most common mistake of the ineffective apologist. Explain exactly what you did wrong and don’t sugarcoat your mistakes. If you’ve violated a trust, then admit you broke the covenant that allows us to trust one another. Accept responsibility.

Step number two: explain your actions. Once you’ve admitted your mistakes, you owe the person an explanation for why you committed them in the first place. An honest explanation is the best hope of rebuilding the relationship. However, explanations often deteriorate into excuses. Don’t blame your parents, your first-grade teacher or caffeine for your behavior. Excuses mean you’re not really accepting responsibility.

Step number three: express remorse. “If the victim does not perceive the party who is apologizing as remorseful,” says Lazare, “the apology may have little meaning.” This step is where people fall into the “I’m sorry you feel that way,” type of apology. That kind of apology means you want the situation to be resolved without too much effort on your part. It takes the blame off you, and puts the blame on the victim. It implies it’s the victim’s fault for reacting the way he or she did. An ineffective expression of remorse would be: “I’m sorry you felt hurt.” An effective one would be: “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

Step number four: make reparations. This step requires careful thought.

Lord Beaverbrook ran into a young member of the British Parliament, Edward Heath, in his London club’s washroom soon after printing an insulting editorial about Heath in his newspaper. “I’ve been thinking it over, and I was wrong,” said Beaverbrook contritely. “Here and now, I apologize.” “Very well,” said Heath. “But next time, please insult me in the washroom and apologize in your newspaper.”

Often if something – an item or object – is broken, our efforts at apology will include restitution of some kind. We might pay to replace the object or fix a broken item. But what if it is a feeling, a heart, a reputation, or a relationship that is injured? Making reparations can be much more difficult. In this case, the experts recommend sincerely asking how to make things better and listening to the response. One suggestion is to ask the question: “What can I do to make things right between us? I’m completely committed to making it happen.”

And then follow through. Many of us don’t think about making reparations in these types of situations, but it is only by showing our true intent to mend, in whatever way we can, that which is torn or broken, that we will truly be fulfilling our duties of apologizing and seeking forgiveness.

But does effective apologizing lead to forgiveness? We hope so, but unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Just as during this time we ask for God’s forgiveness and hope God hears our prayers and the sincerity of our words, we hope those we offended can see their way to offering their forgiveness. This requires some element of trust. We must trust that the other person will be able to overcome the many obstacles to forgiveness. And we must open ourselves to grant forgiveness as well.

During this season, our tradition teaches, we ask that God move from a seat of justice to a seat of mercy in judging us. And as God is our model, we need to imitate those same qualities of compassion and forgiveness.

What makes a sincere apology and forgiveness so powerful is that it confronts the past and begins paving the way for a better future. Author Anne Lamott refers to forgiveness as “giving up all hope of having had a different past.” The same is true for apologizing. A true, heartfelt apology is acceptance of what has transpired, acknowledges our feelings of guilt and self-recrimination, and is the first step in moving forward.

As Rabbi Rachel Sabath writes, “By doing teshuvah you participate in the act of recreation.”

This year let us seek forgiveness openly and honestly and completely. May we find it in our hearts to forgive those we feel have wronged us. For only when we seek and grant forgiveness can we feel the true holiness and glory of this holy season. And let us take to heart the lesson that Ali McGraw’s “Love Story” character died too young to learn: that love means always being willing to say “I’m sorry.”

Cain yehi ratzon. So may this be God’s will. Amen.