Holidays: Saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough

ENCINO, Calif., Aug. 9 (JTA) — In California, as soon as Gov. Gray Davis signs Assembly Bill 2804, we’ll be able to say “I’m sorry” without admitting any guilt or liability, whenever our sports utility vehicle sideswipes a new PT Cruiser or our Rottweiler nips our neighbor’s fingers.

Yes, we can offer “benevolent gestures expressing sympathy” without admitting we are even remorseful. This new piece of legislation, which is aimed at reducing the number of lawsuits, arrives just in time. (There are similar laws in effect in Massachusetts and Texas.)

For across America, apologies are flying fast and furious — from Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker (“I apologize to all of those my careless and unkind words have affected”) to former game show bride Darva Conger (“I committed an error in judgement”), from walk-on guests on the Oprah and Jerry Springer television talk shows to call-on guests on radio request shows.

The words of Brenda Lee’s 1960 hit song, “I’m sorry, so sorry,” are more ubiquitous than the words of our national anthem. We don’t need a public forum or incipient celebrity status to join in this apology-fest. We don’t even need to use our own words. We can log onto the Internet to order a personalized “I’m sorry” song on CD or cassette. Or use the “Apology Note Generator” to ghostwrite an electronic letter.

But these expressions of regret are no more sincere than the following exchange that takes place in our house on a daily basis. “You need to tell your brother you’re sorry,” I say to any one of my four sons — aged 9, 11, 13 and 16 — for any one of these four reasons: a) hitting him, B) hiding his Nintendo controller, c) calling him a moron or d) destroying his Lego creation. “Sorry,” the offending brother mutters, with as much genuineness as a house in Celebration, Florida.

But in Judaism, apologies are not about benevolent gestures of sympathy, PR spin, expediency, public confessionals or grudging obedience to a mother’s request.

They are also not — contrary to character Jimmy Gator in the film “Magnolia,” who confesses his infidelities to his wife as he is dying — about alleviating the guilt of the offender. In Judaism, apologies are consequential, obligatory and heartfelt. They are specific, with time-tested guidelines and rules for repenting the past year’s misdeeds.

And they are generally seasonal, taking place during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur itself, which this year falls at sundown on Oct. 8, we apologize to God only for transgressions between God and ourselves.

As the Talmud states, “For transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” Thus, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we are urged to seek out people we have harmed or offended during the previous year and to directly, honestly and often uncomfortably admit our wrongdoing.

We must also — and this is crucial — make amends or restitution. And even after undergoing this usually painful but psychologically and spiritually uplifting process, we aren’t home scot-free. The Talmud tells us we haven’t fully repented until we are twice confronted with the opportunity to commit the same transgression — and we refuse.

As Jews, we are born with the inclination to do both good and evil, a yetzer tov and a yetzer rah. We are also born with free will, which enables us to take personal responsibility for all our actions and behavior.

But personal responsibility is just that. Personal. As Jews, we are not held accountable for the sins of our fathers or our children. Ezekiel 18:20 states, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father nor the father for the iniquity of the son.” We are not held accountable for the sins of our forefathers either.

This year, however, The Hartford Courant, in a front-page article, bravely but misguidedly apologized for having published advertisements for the sale of slaves in the 1700s and early 1800s. Yes, slavery was an abhorrent, abominable practice.

And, yes, The Hartford Courant, as well as other newspapers at the time, was complicit in both condoning and perpetrating the slave trade, which, however horrific, was legal at the time. But the current owners and editors are no more responsible for running those ads than I am for the behavior of my Uncle Louis, a gambler and con man who was arrested in 1933 for his part in a $25,000 swindle. We can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and predecessors and choose not to repeat them.

We can teach our children about the horrors of slavery and thievery and the necessity of empathy, equality and honesty.

We can ensure that other people around the world are not subjected to ill treatment But just as President Clinton cannot apologize to the Native Americans for destroying their civilizations and Pope John Paul II cannot apologize to women for the burning of witches, so we cannot apologize on someone else’s behalf. Such acts exhibit misplaced magnanimity and demean the victims.

Interestingly, in Hebrew, there is no specific word for sin. The closest is “chet,” which literally means “missing the mark.”

Interestingly, in apologizing for our sins, we also sometimes “miss the mark.” Our apologies are too glib or too global, too self-serving or too centered on blaming others.

The most we can do as we approach the Ten Days of Repentance — the most we’re expected to do — is to deeply and fearlessly examine our own behavior during this past year, to look strictly at our part in hurting or harming someone.

True repentance begins not with dispensing haphazard and superficial apologies, but with accepting personal and ethical responsibility for our own actions and taking the necessary steps to atone and alter our ways.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.

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