People first, God second on Yom Kippur

Once a year I have to apologize. Once a year, God makes me. On Yom Kippur I will stand with our community and ask forgiveness from God. 

I have a spotty history with apologies.  Saying "I'm sorry" isn't as easy for me. We make our kids say it so perfunctorily. "Say you're sorry, sweetie," and everything is all better, while daggers are still being thrown at each other. There are those who feel this isn't a great idea; it drains the apology of any real meaning or impact. I get that, but I made my kids do it anyway.

When I was really young, I must have given my father an I-don't-really-mean-this "I'm sorry," and he told me if I don't mean it, don't bother saying it. I wasn't an easy kid, I imagine.  And, as I remember, for the rest of my childhood, I swore I'd never apologize to him again. His words stuck with me, and I don't think I ever did, or at least, that's the way I remember it. That was probably not the consequence Dad intended. 

Not to blame my dear father, but I haven't been very good at apologizing ever since. There's so much guilt associated with it, so much blame. It feels like a zero sum game, which is about as childish as it gets, "If I apologize to you, I lose and you win."  

I never said I was very mature.

Yet, once a year I have to apologize. Once a year, God makes me. On Yom Kippur I will stand with our community and ask forgiveness from God. I will speak the "Vidui" (Confession), and keenly feel the sharp, painful heart-pricks of my betrayal, cruelty, gossip, neglect, quarreling. Tradition says we can't come before God and ask forgiveness until and unless we have confronted those whom we may have hurt, harmed, or offended first; those who felt the brunt of my insensitivity and thoughtlessness.   People first. God second. Strange that I would feel more comfortable with the latter than the former. 

In his Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) Eitz Ratzon, Joseph Rosenstein writes that forgiveness is what we humans seek from each other. When it comes to us and God, however, he says we seek more of a cleansing. Unlike forgiveness and the required restitution and making amends, we don't offer anything like that to God. We "acknowledge our misdeeds and [resolve] to change our behavior" (p xv), doing the work of Yom Kippur, the day of Cleansing. Changing behavior-that's the tough one, isn't it?  

Maimonides said true repentance is when one is confronted with the same situation, one abstains from making the same mistake twice. The Day of Cleansing is about making a deal with God that we won't do it again. We'll change the behavior that brought pain or sadness into our lives and the lives of those around us, and in return, we will head off into the New Year feeling cleansed. Repentance goes beyond apology. That's encouraging. It's a second (or third…) chance. Repentance feels more hopeful. Repentance looks forward, not back. 

Some years, as I have stood through Neilah, the closing service, when my hunger stings less and the pace picks up, I have felt truly, palpably cleansed. Other years, it's more like the "going through the motions "apologies" of my youth. This year, I will remember the words from a new book by my friend Alden Solovy, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing:  "What is my life?/And what of my death?/ What of my choices?/ And what of my future?.../God of the seen and the unseen/Of the knowable and unknowable/…Teach me to live gently, love generously/And to walk with strength and confidence…./Teach me to see myself and my life as You do/With love…"  This Neilah, I hope, will be a cleansing one.

Wishing you a sweet year of health and peace.  

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,

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