The challenges of saying ‘I’m sorry’
On my very last day of sixth grade, a representative of the big school that all of us would be attending (from junior high through high school graduation) came with a bit of orientation. I’ve never forgotten what he said: “We give you a clean slate.” Then, after a pause: “But you know what people do with clean slates, don’t you? They scribble all over them!”
And so, we did. And so do all of us, every year, starting right after the High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah gives us 10 days before Yom Kippur to erase our past year’s slate, so we can start scribbling on a clean one. Which is just what we quickly begin to do.
In one religious school, years ago, we used to teach the little kids — kindergarten and first-graders — to sing a song with these words: “Let’s be friends. Make amends. Now’s the time to say ‘I’m sorry.’” Of course, we explained “amends” in ways they could understand before going on: “Take my hand and I’ll take yours; let’s be friends for always.”
I always wish adult life could be that simple. I try to use those 10 days of teshuvah — which in that little song are explained as “time to worship, time to pray” — to make amends. But I’m not ever as successful as I’d like to be. Sometimes my apologies are rebuffed, and I can do nothing more about them. Although, Judaism urges me to try again and again, time and distance may make this difficult. Sometimes, I learn that whatever I’m apologizing for is something the person I’m apologizing to doesn’t even remember, or makes nothing of what, to me, was an important no-no. And, sometimes I just plain forget something important until those 10 days are long over, and I’ve gone into another New Year with unfinished business on my unknowing conscience.
These days, some people send out blanket emails, apologizing to everyone in their online address books for anything they might have posted, or said, or done in the past year that could have offended one, or some, or all of the message’s recipients. Does this count? Should it?
Apologizing is always easier with my non-Jewish friends, who can accept it without fully understanding how and why this interesting annual soul-cleansing ritual is of such great importance to me. I do tell them that my life may depend upon it, and leave it at that. I don’t know if this is actually true, if failure to erase that well-scribbled slate in any given year may actually result in never having the opportunity to scribble again. But I prefer not to take any chances.
I have just thought of something. When I send my Shanah Tovah cards — which I still do every year, despite the ease of email — I might add a blanket “Please forgive anything I may have done in the past year to upset or anger you.” This might be a bit too impersonal to pass muster, so I’m not sure I’m willing to try it, at least not this year. But it’s something to think about for next year, which I hope my teshuvah efforts will have assured me that I’ll have: another year in which to try harder not to amass any matters for which I’ll have to apologize. Or, at least fewer of them.
But that’s for next year. This year is coming to its end, and the time is now here for me to say to all of you, “Thanks for reading me this year. And if I’ve written anything you don’t agree with — or dislike — or find totally offensive — please let me know.” Then I can apologize, with the assurance that I’ve said I’m sorry for something specific, because you’ve told me what that is. And then, maybe we can take each other’s hands and be friends — at least for next year, if not for always. Shanah Tovah!