By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Kol Nidrei 5782/September 15, 2021
“I regret any offence that may have been caused.”
“I’m sorry you had your feelings hurt.”
“If there’s been a mistake, I do apologize. But you must know it was never my intention to cause anyone any pain.”
“Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you, but to be fair, you were being really annoying.”
How often have you heard these sorts of terrible apologies? Saying sorry is one of the most important speech acts we have as human beings. But on average, bad apologies, also known as ‘fauxpologies,’ happen way more often than good ones.
There are so many fauxpologies out there that two social scientists created a website to keep track of them back in 2012. This website, called Sorrywatch.com, analyzes current and historical public apologies made by celebrities, politicians, and CEOs.
If you read just one of the hundreds of terrible apologies compiled on Sorrywatch, you might come away thinking, ‘wow, that person is a jerk.’ If you read another, you might think, ‘oh, that person is a jerk too.’ But the more fauxpologies you read, the more you’d realize: This isn’t just a couple of jerks. This is widespread problem, and people really need help figuring out how to apologize better.
The founders of Sorrywatch agreed. So a few years ago, they published a list on their website: ‘The Six Steps to a Good Apology.’
According to Sorrywatch, these are the six steps to a full apology:
- Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” “Regret” is not apology! Regret is how you feel. Apology is about how the other person feels.
- Say specifically what you’re sorry for.
- Show you understand why the thing you said or did was bad.
- Be very careful if you want to provide explanation; don’t let it shade into excuse. This could mean just erring on the side of listening.
- Explain the actions you’re taking to ensure this won’t happen again.
- If you can make reparations, make reparations.
Although SorryWatch feels like a distinctly 21st century phenomenon, its founders – one of whom is Jewish – were partly inspired by Jewish wisdom from 900 years ago: the writings of Maimonides, also known as Rambam. Rambam’s Mishneh Torah devotes 10 chapters to the art of repentance, and includes the original ‘how to apologize’ list. Rambam also engages with broad range of related questions, including whether you should bother apologizing if you’ll probably commit the same sin again (hot tip: it’s the moral equivalent of dunking in a mikvah while holding a lizard carcass – very not kosher!).
If we took all the medieval wisdom of the Mishneh Torah and all the contemporary wisdom of Sorrywatch and boiled it down to one sentence, it’s this: saying sorry is hard.
And it’s not because some people are jerks. It’s not because we don’t always have the wisdom of Sorrywatch or Rambam at our fingertips. It’s because saying sorry can be painful—to the person saying sorry! It can hurt the person who’s apologizing. Or at least it can feel that way.
This is because at its heart, an apology is an acknowledgment of imperfection.
It can be hard for many of us to admit that we’re not perfect. So instead of saying ‘I see how I hurt you,’ our apologies become complex verbal pretzels to help us avoid looking in a moral mirror, to wrap our ego in layers of self-defense, to widen the gap between what we did and how we want to think of ourselves. We want to avoid the pain of seeing ourselves as the villain in someone else’s story.
But it’s a fact; a fact that’s true regardless of how often we’re the hero or the villain in someone else’s story. The fact is: I am not perfect. You are not perfect. We, collectively, are not perfect.
I’m going to say that again. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. We are not perfect.
Our adult minds know what do with this statement. We say to ourselves heartily, ‘Of course I’m not perfect!’ Intellectually, we know perfection is impossible. But under that vigorous acknowledgement of reality and that cool adult rationality, there’s often still a voice that whispers frantically, ‘But I have to be perfect! That’s the only option!’
The little voice that tells us we have to be perfect—where does it come from? For some of us, it’s the voice of our parents and caregivers from when we were children, socializing us, teaching us to be good, and maybe also injuring us a little in the process. For some of us, it’s our history as a people. For centuries, Jews have strived for goodness and success, partly because we imagined that if we were without flaw, we would be less hated by the world. Perfection became our hope for mitigating or avoiding anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence.
If that’s where the little voice comes from, what makes it louder? Well, our tradition, for one. For some of us, compulsory perfection can feel like it’s commanded by our High Holy Days. The fasting, the beating on our chests, the communal reciting of sins can all combine to make us feel like we’re failing some ideal. These holidays can highlight the gap between who we are and who we think we should be.
What happens when the voice that whispers ‘I have to be perfect!’ runs us? We are harsh with ourselves, criticizing our bodies, our accomplishments, our career paths, our relationships. And often, when we cannot hold our own perceived imperfections with lightness or acceptance, we push away weakness and vulnerability and failure in others. When we cannot sit with our own imperfections, it’s harder to sit with others in theirs.
Why does this matter so much? Of course, it’s damaging to empathy and compassion, and those are fundamental to a good life. But I wanted to talk with you about perfection on Kol Nidrei because perfection is the opposite of change. And change is what the High Holy Days are all about.
When we prayed, on Rosh HaShanah, to be written in the Book of Life—when we pray, tonight and tomorrow, to be sealed in the Book of Life—it’s not a negotiation with God-as-Santa Claus, checking a list of naughty and nice to see whether we’ll get the present of life in the new year. It’s not a simple equation of if we’ve been good, we’ll live, and if we’ve been bad, we’ll die. Being written into the Book of Life simply means that we’ll have the chance to keep making mistakes in the coming year.
For life to exist, there needs to be imperfection. If something is perfect, that means it can’t change. And the essence of life—the only condition that makes life possible—is change.
We understand this implicitly when we look at the natural world, but it takes a little more time for it to sink in when it comes to us. If we were perfect, it would mean we wouldn’t—couldn’t—change.
And our tradition knows this. This is one of the foundations of our faith: That the world was not created as perfect, and that we were not created to be perfect. There’s a midrash I love that speaks to this. In the Talmud (Pesachim), we read that before creating our world, before anything else was created, God created teshuvah. Repentance existed before anything else. Back when there was nothing, the possibility of moving towards healing and repair was set into the foundations of our world. And then God created our fallible world, and us within it, with the acceptance that we could never be anything but beautifully imperfect.
How do we repair our relationships with others? We can start by releasing our expectations that they will be perfect. How do we repair our relationship with ourselves? We can start by understanding that imperfection is our nature and our heritage, our past and our future. When we let in the truth that we were never created to be perfect, we start to quiet the little voice with its fearsome whisper.
If imperfection is our nature, and teshuvah is our sacred heritage, the work of our hearts is to hold all this vulnerability tenderly. To hold our past and present, full of missteps, with as much warmth as we welcome our futures. Because our failures and our missteps, our selfishnesses and our egos, our heartbreaks and our dark moments of despair—we’re not meant to ignore them or throw them away. They are part of who we are. They give us knowledge of ourselves. And if we are lucky, and we put in the work, they can become signposts on the path forward.
I want to share one final midrash, one final bit of Torah to carry us into our soul-work, this Yom Kippur:
In Exodus, we learn that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. When he came down the mountain, he found the Israelites worshipping an idol, a calf made of gold. Enraged, Moshe smashed the tablets. And eventually, he had to go back up the mountain to receive a new set from God.
What happened to the stone tablets, the unbroken set, and the broken ones? The Talmud (Berachot) teaches that when the Israelites built the mishkan, the traveling tabernacle for God, they placed both sets of tablets, the broken and the unbroken, side by side into the holy of holies. They placed what was broken and unbroken at the heart of their community. That was where God dwelled.
We are meant to treat what was broken with as much reverence as what is still whole. To embrace the rough with the smooth, the past with the present, the losses and the failures with the joys and successes of our lives. We cannot cast anything away. We must carry our imperfections gently in our hearts, nestled alongside our highest hopes for ourselves, our communities, our world. Only in that way can we achieve wholeness. When we carry both in our hearts.
I’ll close with the priestly blessing—a blessing of shalom, peace, and shlemut, wholeness, for us all:
May the Source bless you and keep you;
May the One turn towards you with light and grace;
May the Eternal face toward you with uplift, and grant you peace.