Shraga's Weekly Parshat Nitzavim: The Apology Factor
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Nitzavim(Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

The Apology Factor

(a continuation of last week's theme...)

A few years ago I learned a valuable lesson about apologies. I was sitting in a classroom and it was a few minutes past the time that the class was scheduled to begin. We were waiting for the teacher to arrive, and when one of my fellow students walked in, I gave him a warm and hearty welcome: "Hello, Alan!"

After the class was over, Alan came up to me and said: "I was so mad at you that I wanted to punch you!"

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

Alan explained. When he walked in and I said a loud "hello," he thought I was trying to draw everyone's attention to the fact that he was late.

Of course, that wasn't my intention at all, and the only reason that my "hello" bothered Alan was because he was feeling self-conscious about his own lateness!

But then I realized: It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong, and whether my insult was intentional or not. The fact remains that I hurt someone's feelings. And for that I must apologize.

The Mechanics of Apology

Next time somebody harms you and then comes to apologize, notice how he does it. There are two approaches people use ― what I call the "sincere apology," and the "selfish apology."

The sincere approach is short and sweet, and sounds something like this:

"I'm sorry I hurt you. I'll be careful to see that it doesn't happen again."

Clean, direct, no excuses. If you'd been hurt, wouldn't you feel better after receiving such an apology?

Next is the "selfish apology." It goes something like this:

"I apologize. But I didn't do it on purpose. I had a hard day and I didn't realize what I was doing. And why are you so sensitive about this, anyway!?"

This person has verbalized an "apology," but it is hollow because they have no regret. They really feel "it's not my fault and I didn't do anything wrong."

The type of apology not only fails to appease the person who was hurt, it actually makes things worse. Why? Because this "apology" is in effect saying:

"The fact that my actions were hurtful to you is not really my problem. And since I don't regret my actions, I will not make an effort to change them. Therefore if a similar circumstance occurs in the future, I would do the same thing and hurt you again!"

What came under the guise of an "apology" actually turns into a great insult.

Positive Effects of Apology

Apologizing can be a difficult, humbling experience. We may feel vulnerable, low and bad.

But it doesn't have to be this way...

Imagine your jacket got stained. Of course you have to take it to the cleaners. But do you feel depressed when your clothes are stained? Of course not! You know that a stain is not a permanent part of the fabric.

Judaism says it's the same thing when we make a mistake. Our soul is the garment that gets stained. And we have to clean it. But making a mistake doesn't mean I'm inherently a bad person! In fact, the Talmud (Yevamot 79) says that a sense of shame is essential to the nature of a Jew.

A distinction needs to be made between "unhealthy" and "healthy" guilt. Unhealthy guilt is where you feel like a bad person. Healthy guilt is where you maintain the sense that you're a good person, while acknowledging that you used bad judgment and made a mistake.

Think back to a time you apologized. How do you feel afterwards? Cleansed! Getting it out is an expansive, cathartic, liberating release. We cleanse the stain and recapture that lost purity. We rectify the past and move forward.

Feeling in the Air

This week's Parsha begins: "You are all standing here today before God" (Deut. 29:9). Allegorically, this is referring to Rosh Hashana, the day when every Jew stands before the Almighty and takes a long, hard look at who they really are.

This is the time of year to make a commitment to correct our mistakes. God is "close" at this time, and as the verse in this week's parsha says: "God will remove the barriers from your hearts" (Deut. 30:6).

There's a feeling in the air. Let's use it!

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Published: January 12, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Anonymous, January 2, 2013 11:48 AM

A hit on the nail

Thank you Rabbi Shraga, this issue came right on time for me to pass along to a friend. Her daughter fainted on the street a few days ago, and the doctors can not find what caused the daughter to faint to the ground twice the same day. Few days later the daughter wanted to drive her car and the mother said no because she is afraid that her daughter's health condition may return unexpectedly. Daughter became extremely furious that her mother would not allow her to drive and instead oferred to drive the daughter where daughter needed to go. Next day daughter writes a text to her mother saying, "Im sorry i snapped at you last night. You made me really upset but I understand your concern, I apologize." When my friend showed me this text, I felt bad for her, as I thought of it as you have just described...a "selfish apology" to a concerned and very dedicated mother. How would you interpret this?? I am curious to hear about other individual's rightious opinion. Thanks again Rabbi for writing such energizing articles. Hag Samia and Shanah Tova

(12) Anonymous, January 2, 2013 11:47 AM

Apologies

Thank you for your column. I find apologies extraordinarily difficult because of my delusion of self-perfection. But, when I finally do apologize, I have found that your "sincere" category is important. I have found a mark of my sincerity to put the "ball" in the injured party's court by concluding with, "what can I do to set things right?" thereby removing an element of control and selfishness on my part.

(11) Anonymous, January 2, 2013 11:47 AM

Enlightening

Your article expressed something which I had difficulty verbalizing in regards to a friend's apologies. I always wondered why I felt worse after he apologized. Now I know. And so does he! Thank you!

(10) Anonymous, January 2, 2013 11:46 AM

Never say "Hello" to a late Alan again?

I can't believe that you have committed yourself to check your watch every time you see Alan, so as to avoid saying "Hello" to him if he happens to be late. I can be sincerely sorry that something happened without committing myself to the effort necessary for it to never happen again. Sorry does not mean "mea culpa". Alan's feelings are his own responsibility, not yours. If I am made angry by something you write on this site, will you apologize to me and let me review all your articles in the future? Of course not! If the story made me angry, it is my responsibility, not yours. If this comment makes you angry, I am sorry it happened, but your anger is your responsibility, not mine. See? Was David guilty of making Saul angry? Was God guilty of making the Pharoah angry?

(9) Anonymous, January 2, 2013 11:46 AM

Perspective

thank you for articulating what I have long believed, 'we often apologize to make ourselves feel better not to admit our wrong and try and help a wounded relationship'. As my father's death 7 years ago made perfectly clear," the only thing that matters in life is relationships, first with the Almighty and then with each and every person we encounter".

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