[Sermon] Lying and Forgiveness

Cantor Tamara Wolfson – Yom Kippur 2018/5779

I will never forget the first lie I ever told.

I must have been around 8 years old at the time. My younger sister and I were playing together in my room, and it was nearing our bedtime. My Dad knocked on the door and asked us whether we were all ready for bed and had brushed our teeth. “Yeah Dad,” I yelled through the closed door.

A few seconds later, the door came swinging open and in stormed my Dad, holding both of our bone-dry toothbrushes.

I don’t remember exactly what my Dad said when he caught me in that lie. What I do remember, though, was how I felt immediately after the lie slipped from my mouth. My heart jumped into my throat and my stomach sank through the floor. A steady stream of tears poured down my cheeks. I felt ashamed, and shaken to my core.

It has been about 20 years since that dental drama unfolded in my childhood bedroom. Each year when we beat our chests during the Yom Kippur confessional, I think about that moment and about the lies I’ve told in the two decades since. One would think that such a deeply impactful — and maybe even slightly traumatic — emotional experience would act as an effective deterrent in the future. But as we all know too well: to err is human. Jewish tradition teaches us that our human inclination, our yetzer, which can be either tov (good) or ra (bad), is what drives us not only to err, but to err repeatedly.

You may notice I am avoiding using the word “sin” here, which is how the Hebrew word “chet” is often translated. Instead of “sin”, I am using the word “err”. This is because the more accurate translation of the word “chet” isn’t actually “to sin” — rather, it means “to miss the mark”, as one misses a target in archery.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “err” in two different ways:
1) to be mistaken or incorrect; and
2) to sin or do wrong. While the language of “our sins” is ubiquitous during this time of year, I find the language of “our mistakes” equally compelling. 20 years ago, my brain definitely did not register that I had committed a sin. But I did know quite clearly that I had made a mistake that needed rectifying.

So how did I rectify the terrible mistake I had made that night? Of course, I told my Dad that I was sorry. But in this case, just saying sorry wasn’t enough. I needed to demonstrate that I really understood what it meant to say sorry, and to understand the important difference between saying sorry and being sorry.

“Saying you’re sorry,” my Dad explained to me later, “means you feel guilty for doing something wrong. Being sorry means that you’ll try your hardest to never do it again.”

How good are we at being sorry as opposed to saying sorry?

These days, we rattle off apologies as easily as we breathe. I’ve apologized to professors before asking a clarification question in class. I’ve apologized in meetings before speaking, even when it’s my item on the agenda. I’ve apologized to waitstaff before asking for the bill, or before sending back something that I hadn’t ordered in the first place.

What’s behind these apologies? Surely, it’s not remorse or guilt for simply existing. Rather, these apologies represent something deeper.

In a 2015 New York Times opinion piece1, Sloane Crosley writes that these apologies “sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing”.

Martin Antony, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab at Ryerson University, has a different take. He writes in a 2017 article in Vice2: “Depending on the purpose of the behavior and the context in which it is occurring, [saying sorry] could be conceptualized as a safety behavior, an overprotective behavior, or a compensatory strategy. All of these are terms used to describe behaviors that are designed to protect an individual from aversive emotions or potential threat.”

These apologies are social tools rather than sincere pleas for forgiveness. And while we’ve all been guilty of one or both of these examples, these apologies strip our true apologies of some of their nuance and meaning. When we say sorry so many times and in so many ways, can we still appreciate and recognize a sincere apology when it is offered?

There’s another important category of apology that we’ve all experienced before: the non-apology. The language is there, but the kavana — the intention — is conspicuously absent. These non-apologies are often worse than not hearing an apology at all.

In a September 2009 sermon, Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove spoke about non-apologies3. He referenced the book “On Apology” by Aaron Lazare, in which the author lists a number of ways that we apologize without truly being sorry:

    1. We apologize, but do it without sincerity. The words come out hollow.
    2. We say, “I am just doing what everyone else is doing”. We justify our own inadequacies by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.
    3. We offer a conditional apology: “If anyone was offended by what I said, I apologize.” This apology is particularly offensive because it shifts the blame.
    4. We vaguely apologize for “whatever we did”.
    5. We passively admit that “mistakes were made.”

I’m sure we could add to this list from our various experiences of either offering or receiving apologies that missed the mark. These are just a few of many examples of how we avoid the hard work of apologizing at all costs.

At the same time, we could easily formulate a list of apologies that we have been happy to receive: apologies that are sincere, heartfelt, and impactful. We all know how it feels to encounter a “good apology”. But can we qualify what exactly makes an apology good? Here, our tradition offers us some answers.

“The medieval commentator Rambam wrote that the repentance of Yom Kippur is really a series of good apologies to the people we have hurt, as well as making a good apology to God. He said that a good apology consists of four main steps.

The first step, according to Rambam, is to admit in clear words what you did wrong, by confessing your wrong out loud and asking for forgiveness.

The second step is to express remorse, to say that you recognize the damage you have done and your determination not to make the same mistake again.

The third step is to make amends. You must commit to righting your wrongs and repairing the damage you have done.

Finally, the Rambam says that repentance is not complete until you face the same situation again and make better choices. No apology can mean anything unless it means that you have changed because you recognize the wrong you have committed.” 4

These four steps represent the key difference between saying sorry and being sorry. Saying sorry in a nuanced and meaningful way involves swallowing one’s pride, consciously admitting wrongdoing, and expressing remorse. But being sorry takes an apology further: rather than a singular moment, being sorry is a continual commitment. Being sorry is a transformational covenant between one person and another, stating that real emotional and behavioral change has occurred, and will persist well into the future.

We are a people of covenant. We are familiar with the language of these long-standing emotional commitments to the human project, a project much greater than our individual selves. And now during this time of personal and communal repentance, we recommit ourselves to that project by accepting a new covenant upon ourselves: the covenant of being sorry.

20 years ago, I told my Dad I was sorry without fully understanding the nuances of being sorry. I re-live that moment each year and re-learn that crucial lesson all over again. Today, we are offered an opportunity for each of us to re-live our own similar moments, and to study again the lessons we’ve learned through these moments. Today I offer an additional lesson, and an additional challenge: to re-examine our apologies, and to work collectively on creating a culture not just of saying sorry, but of being sorry.

May this distinction help us all to better engage in the work of repairing the world, repairing our relationships, and repairing ourselves.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/opinion/when-an-apology-is-anything-but.html
2 https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/mb34ax/apologizing-anxiety
3 https://pasyn.org/resources/sermons/%5Bfield_dateline-date%5D-4
4 https://www.rebjeff.com/blog/im-sorry

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