September 30, 2019
“This is just to say,” a poem by William Carlos Williams:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
“This American Life,” contributor Shawn Cole imagines this poem as a hastily scribbled note left on the kitchen table. Whereas the poem appears to be a confession, Cole points out that the poet “never apologizes . . .He says ‘forgive me,’ which is kind of a command.” But the apology takes more of the form of “I ate the plums and that was a bad thing, but I’m not sorry.”
This poem is frequently imitated, and here are some of my favorites:
“I have dried the shirt/made of 100% cotton/ that was on your floor/ and which/ you were probably/ planning/ to air dry/ Forgive me/ if you had sorted/ your own laundry/ it would not be/ so short/ and so small” (Anonymous).
“I have killed the wizard who was in your novels, and whose death you were probably saving for book seven. Forgive me, he had it coming, so beardy and so old” (Tom Phillips).
“I have pulled the pin from the grenade that was on your desk. Forgive me, I thought it was my keyring, and. . .” (Jason Nicolas).
This poem has also generated a number of responses, including a meme of a woman writing a letter that says, “If you did not purchase plums for the icebox, they are not yours. This means you, William! Some of us cannot eat poems when we are hungry!”
Each poet confesses that their behavior was selfish and hurtful to the reader. After that, however, the apologies sort of fall flat. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” and offering to make restitution for their actions, the poet rubs their pleasure in their victim’s face.
These are confessions, but not apologies. And as we begin our Ten Days of Repentance, it is important to make a distinction between the two.
So what does a true apology look like?
Moses Maimonides, a medieval Jewish commentator, and author of The Laws of Repentance (which we might also call Teshuva for Dummies), writes:
“How does one confess?
By saying, ‘I beseech You, God, I have sinned, I have transgressed,
I have committed iniquity before You and done this or that.
Behold, I regret and feel ashamed by my deeds,
and I vow never to repeat this action again.’ ” (MT Hilchot Teshuva 1:1).
I would shorten it thus: “I sinned,
I did X,
I sincerely regret what I’ve done,
and I’ll never do it again.”
This final step is crucial. According to Maimonides, one has not achieved complete repentance, until one has faced the same situation, and refrained from committing the same sin (MT Hilchot Teshuva 2:1).
Let’s try a Maimonidean apology with our poet:
I have sinned,
I stole your plums and ate them.
I regret that I was selfish and inconsiderate.
I will never do it again.
Not quite as poetic, but definitely more effective, especially if he resolves to leave his wife’s breakfast alone.
Notice that this apology formula does not include room to say, yes, what I did was terrible, but I only did it because of something that actually makes this YOUR fault and releases ME from all blame.
Such “apologies” are prevalent today, especially during a political campaign:
Recently, one politician responded to criticism about an offensive statement by apologizing only for not enunciating the word “or,” as if to say, “I didn’t say anything offensive. You just didn’t hear me correctly.”
Meanwhile, another politician apologized for laughing at a tasteless joke by stating that they hadn’t actually heard the joke when they laughed at it.
Bad public apologies are so widespread that writers Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy created a blog called “Sorry Watch,” which analyzes apologies in the media. Their site features “Bad Apology Bingo” with a chart of no-nos such as “It was not my intent,” “What I meant was…” and “This is not who I am.” They also have a special card just for comedians, which includes words like “edgy,” “satire,” and “to anyone who was offended….”
We don’t have to be famous to fail in this regard. Too many of us respond to criticism by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or blaming others for their “disproportionate” reaction to our behavior. We expect people to judge us only on the intent of our words and actions, not their impact.
And worse, some of us choose not to apologize at all. We imagine that the only way to make things better is if we can undo what we did wrong. Since that is always difficult, and often impossible, we think that the next best thing is to try to forget about it, in hopes that the other party does the same.
But often what someone who is hurting wants most is for their pain to be acknowledged. In order to truly move past something awful that we’ve done, we need to recognize the importance of having uncomfortable conversations, like this one.
“This is just to say,” by Abraham:
I have taken our son to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed.
G-d told me to do it–
Just as G-d told me to listen to you, Sarah,
When you demanded I cast out my son,
And his mother,
And I knew,
If I asked you,
to give me Isaac,
You wouldn’t have it.
You’d plead with me not to take your only son away.
And I know
that your heart will be broken by this loss,
but I guess that makes two of us.
Nowhere are genuine apologies more necessary, or more glaringly absent, than in this morning’s Torah portion, which chronicles the later life of our ancestor Abraham.
After a long period of infertility, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, have a child, Ishmael, through a surrogate, Hagar.
Then, at the age of ninety, Sarah learns that she will be able to give birth after all.
But her joy at this miracle is short-lived. Jealousy rages between Hagar and Sarah, until finally Sarah orders Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael for good. Abraham obeys.
No sooner has the dust settled from this incident, than Abraham receives the command from G-d:
“Take your son
your only one,
the one you love,
and go forth
to the land of Moriah.
Offer him there
as a burnt-offering,
on one of the mountains
that I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2).
Even though Abraham has previously argued with G-d, defending the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, here our ancestor silently obeys. He embarks upon a three-day journey together with Isaac. He even goes as far as to bind Isaac to an altar and raise a knife above his throat, before G-d intervenes. Abraham is rewarded for his loyalty to God, and blessed with many descendants.
There are many explanations as to why this Torah portion is read on Rosh Hashana.
Some say that we read this portion so that, just as G-d “remembered” Sarah and granted her life and blessing through Isaac, so too should G-d remember us for life and blessing on this New Year.
Some say that we read this portion so that we can imagine that our futures are in peril on this Day of Judgment, just as Isaac was in peril on Mt. Moriah.
And some say that we read this Torah portion because Abraham’s faith was so perfect that he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son. Therefore, we ask G-d to spare us, Abraham’s imperfect descendants, on his behalf, on this, the first of the Ten Days of Repentance.
This last explanation is particularly disturbing. What kind of “faith” would demand that a person inflict bodily and emotional harm on the people they love? This is not who I’d want as a character witness.
And so, I’m going to suggest a different interpretation. As we begin the Ten Days of Repentance, the characters in this Torah portion serve as a kaleidoscope made from the shattered remnants of their broken relationships:
Hagar taunts Sarah when the former first becomes pregnant.
Sarah abuses the pregnant Hagar, forcing her to run away.
Ishmael “mocks” Isaac, in a way that makes Sarah fear for her son’s safety and his future.
Abraham casts out Hagar and Ishmael, at Sarah’s request.
God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham, without consulting his wife or his son, obeys.
Within this family, there is not one pairing in which one person does not owe the other a genuine apology. And none of them speak to each other after this Torah portion:
Sarah dies immediately afterwards, some say out of grief;
Abraham arranges Isaac’s marriage through an intermediary;
Isaac and Ishmael do not see each other again until after Abraham’s death, when they silently bury the father they could not share;
and we never see Hagar again.
This parasha is a complex web of missing conversations and absent apologies. And in it, we see ourselves:
We see ourselves in Abraham, who has an ironclad defense for any wrongdoing: G-d told me to do it.
We see ourselves in Sarah, who could claim that she was only looking out for the best interests of her child.
We see ourselves in Hagar, a powerless woman, who, given a taste of superiority, rubs it in her rival’s face.
We see ourselves in Isaac and Ishmael, who were betrayed by the people they were supposed to trust the most.
We see ourselves in the silence that follows the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and the binding of Isaac.
Theologian Judith Plaskow writes: “[O]ften the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and human society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves and the world we have created, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might change and address them” (Judith Plaskow, “Contemporary Reflection: Vayera,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. p. 107).
In reading this Torah portion on Rosh Hashana, we might look to these characters not as ideals to strive for, but as patterns to break.
In ten days, on Yom Kippur, we will stand before G-d and ask for forgiveness for our mistakes. Because G-d is El-rahum, a G-d of compassion, we have reason to believe that, if we have truly done the work of teshuva, our request will be accepted.
But Maimonides reminds us, “Teshuva and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between humans and G-d…however, sins between one human being and another…will never be forgiven until one gives to the other what one owes them and appeases them” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:9).
We must account for all of the times this year when we missed the mark with someone we care about. We need to make reparations, resolve to change our behavior, and, most importantly, to apologize.
This last part sounds easy. An apology only requires two words: I’m sorry. And yet, we often expend dozens of extraneous words in our effort to avoid saying them.
A congregant once observed to me that many of us choose to live with guilt because the pain of guilt is more comfortable than what we would have to go through to get rid of it.
The moment we bring our guilt to the person we’ve hurt, we open ourselves up to a conversation that we cannot predict. What if they are angrier than we’d imagined? What if our actions had consequences we hadn’t anticipated? What they had forgotten the whole thing and our mention of it opened a mostly-healed wound?
But if we don’t open ourselves up to those possibilities, we close ourselves off to even the possibility of reconciliation.
The writer Steven Levine asks, “If you knew you were going to die soon, and could only make one phone call, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”
The High Holy Days instill in us the urgency we need to reach out to those we’ve hurt, and those who’ve hurt us; to shatter the silence, and get rid of the guilt. Who is it that we need to reach out to? And why are we waiting?
In her book Why Won’t You Apologize, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “‘I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language. When they are spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we have offended. Our apology can help free the hurt person from life-draining anger, bitterness, and pain. It validates their sense of reality by affirming that yes, their feelings make sense, we get it, and we take full responsibility for our words and actions (or our failure to speak or act). A heartfelt apology allows the hurt party the space to explore the possibilities of healing instead of just struggling to make sense of it all” (Lerner 175).
But, Lerner adds, apologies can also be healing to ourselves, because they help us to see ourselves and the effect of our actions more clearly. They can heal our relationships, because they show our loved ones that “we’re capable of reflecting on our behavior, and that we’ll listen to their feelings and do our best to set things right” (Lerner 175-6).
We don’t know how our ancestors felt about their contributions to the mess that was Abraham’s family. All we know is that they failed to make even the simplest of apologies, as Maimonides might have written for Abraham:
I have sinned,
I took a second wife when my first wife was clearly suffering,
I cast out my oldest son and his mother,
I took my younger son to be sacrificed behind my wife’s back,
And I never explained or apologized for any of my behavior.
I sincerely regret that I let resentment and silence destroy my household.
I may not deserve a second chance to be a good parent, or a good spouse. But if I have the opportunity to face these challenges again, I will open myself up, not only to G-d, but to my loved ones, so that we can learn to serve the Holy One together as a whole, and healed, family.
We could similarly imagine apologies from the remaining cast of characters:
Hagar might apologize for taunting Sarah, and Sarah for abusing Hagar.
Ishmael might apologize for mocking Isaac, and Isaac for not sticking up for Ishmael.
Both mothers could apologize for not caring for her rival’s child as if he were her own.
On this Day of Judgment, we take comfort in the fact that our ancestors were NOT perfect people, and that their actions sometimes include behaviors that are difficult to admire.But we pray that, just as G-d forgave our ancestors for their struggles and their silences, we will be granted forgiveness for our own imperfections, and given the opportunity to renew ourselves this year.
And I pray that, if I’ve hurt you in any way this year, you’ll be brave enough to tell me, so that I can really hear you, and make it right.
And as for the rest of us, let us use this clean slate to strive to be better than our ancestors, to break these patterns of silence and self-righteousness, and to commit these next ten days to open communication and genuine apology. That way, in ten days, we can stand here before G-d, confident that we have done all that we could to repair the hurts we’ve caused in the past year. And let us commit the coming year to nurturing, healing, and renewing our relationships with the people we love the most.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz