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Seeking forgiveness on Selichot with help from the pros

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With Selichot services starting in early September, what can we learn about repentance and forgiveness from the apologies of public figures? (Edmon Rodman)

With Selichot services starting in early September, what can we learn about repentance and forgiveness from the apologies of public figures? (Edmon Rodman)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — What can Tiger and Toyoda teach us about teshuvah?

With Selichot, a service of repentance-centered prayers said in preparation for the High Holidays, coming on the night of Sept. 4, is there anything we can learn about saying “I’m sorry” from public figures?

The airwaves have been full of apologies this year. But unlike soon-to-be former BP Chairman Tony Hayward or South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, we usually don’t say “selach li,” “forgive me,” on TV in front of a world audience.

The community that does hear our Ashamnus is more immediate, even intimate, as we often rise to say these words of confession among family and friends, even the people we may have wronged.

Why compare ourselves to public persons? After all, we didn’t wreck the gulf, create poorly engineered automobiles or destroy our relationships by seeking additional sexual partners.

At least mostly.

Most of us discover that even though the wrongs we commit never come with front-page headlines, in our mind’s eye they can read just as large.

So what can we learn from these staged and scripted, spin-doctored apologies? That for shul on Yom Kippur we should toss the traditional white and instead don apologetic blue? Or perhaps learn to pull an easily readable “I’m sorry” face?

Behind all the staging and showmanship, there still seems to me a kernel of kavanah, of right intention, in these apologies. Some attempts, like Sanford’s, often fall short, seemingly compiling a public "al chait" of how not to say you’re sorry. But we can find insight in the attempts and learn from their mistakes.

“I have been unfaithful to my wife,” Sanford declared before delving into the detailed how and why of his indiscretions.

In contrast to this public confession, Selichot prayers are not much interested in specifics; in fact they are TMI sensitive. Standing in synagogue, thankfully, we are not asked to offer up personal details.

Since Judaism has no word for “sin,” the declarations in Ashamnu recited late on a Selichot night, in comparison to the governor’s specifics, ask us to acknowledge collectively where we have missed the mark. We say instead, “We have been perverse. We have been wicked … We have used sex exploitatively.”

Furthermore, in his book “Living Judaism,” Rabbi Wayne Dosick relates that according to the Talmud, “God forgives transgressions committed against him, but offenses against another human being must first be forgiven by the injured party.”

We don’t know what Sanford said to his family before going on the air. Perhaps he sought forgiveness from his wife and family. Regardless, I know that when I screw up, independent of TV coverage, I have real work to do.

Tiger Woods’ admission of a life of philandery and deception, even if you think golf is a total snooze, probably stirred you awake this year.

“I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you," he said in a televised apology.

“For all that I have done, I am sorry,” he said in an attempt of teshuvah, which literally means “return,” and in Judaism describes the concept of repentance.

Further into the apology, Woods even sounded Ashamnu-esque: “I was unfaithful. I never thought about who I was hurting. I felt I was entitled. I was wrong. I was foolish. I brought this down on myself.”

Liturgically, what I found lacking was the key summation of humility that is said following Ashamnu: “We have abandoned excellent commandments and judgments, and it has not turned out well with us.”

For its apology, British Petroleum chose a 60-second commercial to say sorry for environmentally ravaging the Gulf of Mexico. What was it about Hayward’s voice that didn’t sound apologetic? I don’t think it was just his accent or stiff demeanor.

On Selichot, which means forgiveness, when we rise to say “Shema Kolenu,” “hear our cry,” the tenor of our voice or even our fumbling with the words is not supposed to matter.

So forgetting about his tone, what I found missing from Hayward’s words was a sentiment akin to the prayer’s directedness, in which we ask God to “help us to return” and the promise that we “shall indeed return.”

Yes, Hayward and BP took responsibility and promised “we will make things right.” But where was the teshuvah? Are they going to change? Will this ever happen again? The nasty online parodies of this commercial seem to indicate that many just didn’t buy it.

This winter, appearing at a hearing before the U.S. Congress, the grandson of Toyota’s founder apologized for his cars that would not stop.

“I am deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced,” Akio Toyoda said.

In an almost High Holy Dayish tone, he asked his customers for forgiveness and faith.

“I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again,” he said.

Was Toyoda preparing us for the Thirteen Attributes of Corolla?

To make amends, he offered that Toyota is dedicated to “continuous slow improvement” — the “change for the better” concept of “Kaizen” upon which Toyota has successfully built itself.

If applied to human relationships, it is this idea of gradual improvement — of continuous teshuvah, if you will — that among all the apologies I find the most useful for Selichot and the season’s Days of Repentance.

Beginning with Selichot, it’s a long, hard haul down an often curvy teshuvah highway, and steering toward “continuous slow improvement” sounds like a plan.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

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