Erev Rosh Hashannah 5773

The Five “R” s of Repentance One of the most popular radio programs in the United States is Car Talk. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, have been a mainstay of National Public Radio for twenty five years.  Car Talk draws over four million listeners every week.    On their website, the brothers wrote a blog of the technological innovations that they would like to see on all cars.  These included dual climate control –which would likely save some marriages, and stability control — which would likely save some lives.  But, the most needed innovation in today’s automobile, they wrote, is a “sorry button” on the dashboard of every car! Think about it. In this age of technological advancement in communications, our automobiles are stuck with a primitive communication devise that was installed when the first horseless carriages made their appearance in the early 1800s in Britain!  This is a “one-sound-fits-all” form of communication.  A driver wants to warn someone out of the way — HOOOONK!  You want to alert a friend that you are waiting for them in front of their home – HOOONK!  You see another driver doing something dangerous – HOOOOONK!  What about when we are driving and make a mistake?  What about when we do something irresponsible on the road?  The other driver has no other option than to lean on their horn and —– HOOONK!  What are we likely to do?  Why, HOOOONK back!  Some drivers will likely to make an unfriendly gesture, then the other driver  becomes indignant, perhaps yelling something back ……who knows where that will lead!  So, a “sorry” button on our cars would be a great innovation.  If we make a mistake driving and the other driver honks at us, we would be able to push a button on the dash and a light would go on saying “I’m sorry.” How disarming would that be?  That would probably nip any road rage in the bud.  Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be great if we human beings came with a built in “sorry button.”  We could push a button on our belt, say, and a small sign on our lapel would flash out, “sorry.”  But there is a difference between a superficial “sorry” and asking for forgiveness.  “I’m sorry I cut you off”, “I’m sorry I lost your keys”, “I’m sorry I kept you waiting”, “I’m sorry I stepped on your toe,” reflect regret, but they are not true apologies.   “What constitutes a “true apology”?  This is the theme I want to address this evening. It is an important question for this time of the year, this season where we are encouraged to take an inventory of our actions and seek reconciliation with our fellow.  Erev Rosh Hashannah marks the beginning of the Aseret Yemai Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance.  Maimonides writes in his Laws of Teshuva that observing Yom Kippur atones only for our sins that we committed against G-d – for example, eating some forbidden food, or failing to properly observe the Sabbath.  For transgressions between one person and another, however, we need to apologize to the other person.  We need, in Maimonides words, to appease him, to ask forgiveness from him, during these next ten days.  Maimonides never tells us, however, HOW we should ask forgiveness.  Consider a verse from this famous John Denver song: I’m sorry for all the lies I told you I’m sorry for the things I didn't say But more than anything else, I’m sorry for myself — I can’t believe you went away. No wonder this guy is all alone!  He is feeling sorrier for himself than he is for the lies he told, and for what he didn’t say.  He seems less concerned with the fact that he has hurt another person’s feelings, and betrayed their trust, than with the consequences to himself for doing so – that he is all alone!   Would this be considered an authentic apology? I think not. The hurt party would want to know what particular lies he is talking about?  Which things did he wish he would have said, but did not?  This verse captures beautifully the nature of many of the apologies we hear in the public sphere as well as in the private realm.  They are short on specifics and long on self pity. The apologies that we give and that we receive are too often vague and self serving. How does one go about saying “I’m sorry”?  What constitutes an authentic apology?  Our former congregant, John Kador, wrote a book entitle “Effective Apology” in which he outlines the five “R”s of asking forgiveness:  Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution and Repetition. The first step is recognition:  One of the most difficult things about apologizing is that you have to recognize that you are wrong in the first place.  We human beings, however, tend to be convinced of our rightness.  While we are in the process of being wrong, we are oblivious to it.  Putting it another way, if we knew we were wrong, would we be acting that way in the first place?   We can only realize we are wrong in retrospect, upon examination, upon reflection. Sometimes we know immediately after we utter the offending words or do the offending deed. Sometimes it is days, months or even years later that we may realize we were wrong. That is what this period in Jewish life, these High Holidays, challenges us to do. That is what heshbon ha-nefesh, self examination, is supposed to accomplish. This is a period of communal and personal introspection.  This is the time of year we reflect on our actions and our behavior and ask the question — Could I have been – WRONG!? Responsibility:  The second step in the process of preparing an authentic apology is to take responsibility for ones actions.  Owning what we did.  “I am sorry I didn’t phone when I said I would — I got another call”. That is not an authentic apology. That is an excuse.  “I am sorry you took it that way — that is not what I meant” is not an apology either. This is blaming the other person for misunderstanding what you consider your harmless words.  A classic example of evading recognition and responsibility comes to us via a midrash on Cain and Abel.  As you may remember, Cain and Abel both offered gifts to G-d.  G-d accepted Abel’s gift, but found Cain’s lacking, and rejected it. In a fit of jealousy, Cain killed Abel.  Afterward, G-d asked Cain where Abel was.  According to the rabbis, Cain admitted he slew Abel, but tried to evade responsibility by blaming the only other being around — G-d. It was God’s fault, claimed Cain, that he killed Abel.  If G-d had accepted Cain’s gift, as he did Abel’s, Cain would not have gotten jealous, and killed him. When that line of reasoning didn’t work, Cain argued, according to the rabbis, that the death of Abel was G-d’s responsibility, because G-d had created humankind in the first place with the emotion of jealousy.  We all remember Cain’s immortal words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rabbis say that by this Cain meant that G-d was in fact the keeper of the entire world, and yet G-d let Cain slay him!  There is no evidence that Cain either recognized that he did wrong, or took responsibility for his actions. Step number three in giving an authentic apology is expressing remorse:   Only after a true recognition of our wrongdoing and only after taking responsibility for the wrong can the “I am sorry” part occur.  This part, the “apology”, is the hardest to do.  For one thing, it is humbling, because it is essential that the offense to the other person be explicitly named.  The person you are apologizing to has to be clear exactly what wrong you are apologizing for.  It is only then that the words “I am sorry” are truly powerful.  One of the most poignant experiences humans can have is to give a sincere apology or to receive one.  These words have the capacity to break down walls and to heal wounds that have festered for years. They have the ability to make us feel whole, valued and respected.    Step number four is restitution:  Maimonides states that in order to fully apologize to another person we must provide monetary restitution for the loss that they incurred by our improper action.  Maimonides speaks of monetary compensation, but restitution need not always involve just money. When I was the Rabbi in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, we had an incident of desecration of our cemetery.  The youths who were responsible were eventually caught.  Paying for the damage caused, the synagogue felt, was not enough.  The congregation also wanted the young people responsible to visit the local Holocaust Museum to understand anti-Semitism and the emotional damage that had been inflicted on the Jewish community by this act of vandalism.  That further act of restitution needed to be made. Finally, the fifth “R” is repetition:  The person who has been hurt wants to insure that they will not be hurt in the same way again.  Being wronged one time can bring on anger, but being wronged a second time can elicit feelings of shame.  No one wants to be thought of as a naïve person who is easily fooled.  The fear of being hurt a second time by the same behavior from the same person often prevents the hurt person from fully accepting an apology.  When and if the apology IS accepted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship can go back to the way it was before.  Yet, this is an assumption we often seem to make. Our rabbis used a very powerful metaphor to explain this.  They said that a transgression against another resembles pounding nails into a wooden chest.  When a person says they are sorry and ask for forgiveness, it resembles removing the nails from the wooden chest.  The nails may be removed, but the holes remain.  The apology can be given, but the scars may not disappear.  In a book called The Power of Apology, the author Beverly Engel wrote: “Every single day we do things that hurt other people’s feelings or that show disrespect. We are impatient and rude to store clerks; we snap at our co-workers; we become defensive and argue unnecessarily with our friends; we say hurtful things to our partner in the heat of a disagreement: we misjudge our friends’ intentions when they try to help, and we shame our children and let them down.” Ms. Engel explains that we rationalize our mistakes saying…it isn’t all that important –they will get over it. This year – let’s not be so easy on ourselves.  Let’s not be so sure that “they’ll just get over it”. Know that the most sacred moments of these High Holidays are not the times when we are in the synagogue praying.  The most sacred moments are not when we are singing Avinu Malkenu, or hearing the blasts of the shofar, or listening to Kol Nidre.  The most sacred moments of these holidays are when we are at home, when we are back at our places of work, when we are dropping our children off to school or when we meet one another in the synagogue parking lot and we turn to one another and say, “I’m sorry for what I did. I will try to do better next year.”  We say in our prayers that G-d is “chanun umarbeh lisloach” – that G-d is gracious and abundant in forgiveness.”  G-d wants to see us, G-d’s children, forgive one another. These next ten days are called the Asseret Yemai Teshuva – the Ten Days of Repentence. Teshuva can also mean returning. Let us return in our thoughts, for these ten days, to the past year.  Let us turn to one another.  Was there a friend or a colleague with whom you were rude or impatient?  Was there a customer or client, a teacher or a student, with whom you lost your temper?  Take some time this week to seek them out, and tell them how sorry you are for your behavior.   If you are a parent, did you shame or belittle your child at any time during the year?  Did they come home from school with all A’s and one C, and instead of focusing on praising them for the A’s you highlighted the C?  Did you miss an important game or school activity and make an excuse for your absence?  Did you fail to listen patiently and empathically to their problems, because you thought they were, after all, only a child’s problem?  This week, turn to them, and offer them an authentic apology. If you are someone’s child, sitting here this evening with your parent.  Did you fail to take your parents needs into account when you were making plans with your friends?  Have you talked back to them, or acted disrespectfully?  Did you want something badly and get angry at them when they could not give it to you?  This week, these ten days of Repentance, look back at your behavior, talk to your parents about it, resolve to do better this year. We honk our horns too much at each other, and we do not talk enough with each other.   A sorry button might be a great accessory for an automobile.  It is woefully inadequate for a human being.  Take time these next ten days to reflect.  Consider those you may have hurt. Remember and reflect and use the five steps of apology – Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution and Repetition.  Then may we fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together, so that we may understand each other, and forgive one another, and live together in peace.”  Amen