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Apologies: Real or Hollow? #692

09/10/2021 06:06:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Apologies: Real or Hollow?

“Sincere apologies, it would seem, are becoming our nation’s fastest diminishing resource.”

So wrote Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue in 2013.

In particular, he referred to the behavior of a famous tennis player, who had recently thrown a tantrum after losing a US Open match.

The tennis star subsequently issued a “non-apology apology“ blaming the “passion I have for my job,” and her emotions for “getting the better of her.”

Yet, as Rabbi Cosgrove noted, nowhere in her initial statement to her fans was the word “sorry” used.

How interesting that politicians, athletes and entertainers — during these times when words flow so freely — rarely apologize without reservation for bad behavior or inappropriate comments.

So often, apologies are seen as signs of weakness — as gestures of capitulation. 

So often, we hear, “I’m sorry if you felt insulted by what I just said.” Or, in what is known as a “conditional apology,” — “If anyone was offended by what I said, I apologize.”  

That type of apology is particularly offensive because it shifts the blame. It implies that if you are offended, that is your problem, “but I understand.”

Friends, this Shabbat is an important day on the Jewish calendar. It is known as Shabbat Teshuvah — the Sabbath of Return. It comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at a time where, traditionally, we look to release our spiritual baggage, and to identify areas where we can improve.

Often, “returning” means identifying some fault and seeking to address it. This week, we are encouraged to develop a plan in order to break the cycle of repetitive behaviors.

It’s an introspective process. But, as our Sages teach, part of the process of making room for God often involves sincerely apologizing to others.

Our tradition teaches that before we can make peace with God, we must make peace with our friends and, in particular, our family. Then and only then does God listen.

For many, it is a difficult step. It implies that in some way, we’ve lost the battle. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Some of you may have heard of the Dionne quintuplets — five girls born in 1934 to an impoverished family in Callander, Ontario, Canada.

The five girls became the darlings of the media both in the US and Canada. They were featured numerous times on the cover of Life Magazine.

In fact, a museum called “Quintland” was created to satisfy the thirst of tourists to observe how the quintuplets lived. The quints became wards of the state, while the Ontario provincial government, and those around them, began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction.

The problem was that the proceeds earned failed to produce any long-term benefits. Much of the profits was squandered.

In 1998, a story in Canada, revived the public’s attention to the quintuplets. Three of the surviving sisters, some suffering from serious illness, asked the government of Ontario to provide them with assistance in return for the contribution they had made to the provincial coffers.

Reeling from a recession and a public policy of fiscal responsibility, the government, initially refused. Then it offered a pension of $1,400 per month to each of the survivors.

The reputation of the government, in particular Premier Mike Harris, continued to decline, until one day, Harris decided he had enough. He sincerely apologized for his insensitivity and thus reversed his course.

On May 7, 1998, the media reported, “After a week-long public outcry over the government's first offer, Ontario Premier Mike Harris Friday personally offered the three surviving Dionne quintuplets his apologies, a settlement of almost $3 million and a public inquiry into their years inside a ‘children's zoo’ known as Quintland.”

Attorney General Charles Harnick offered a more direct apology.

"We made mistakes," Harnick said. "This is clearly a case where our government — and I in particular — allowed process and legal technicalities to get in the way of people and compassion.”

After 60 years of treating the sisters as “human exhibits,” Harnick said, “It was time for the government and people of Ontario to offer the sisters an apology.”

The sisters and the public were satisfied, and the controversy quickly dissolved. Everyone moved forward.

I often use this case to punctuate the fact that sometimes when we commit a moral error, the best policy is to face the matter head on, and — where appropriate — offer an apology.

There are many ways to do so. There is the passive apology, “mistakes were made” or the vague apology, “I’m sorry for whatever I did.” Have you ever received one of those?

Rather, the most effective apology of all perhaps is to acknowledge that, “there was something sitting within me about which I don’t feel good. I’m sorry for what I did. I’ll try to do better in the future.”

Nothing can ever repair some of the damage that we have done, but apologizing can serve as a first step towards reconciliation.

As we approach Yom Kippur, let us give some thought to the deeds we have committed during this past year. Can we do better? Is there someone we need to say, “I’m sorry to?” Or, even better, are we capable of accepting an apology that’s been offered to us?

Indeed, honest and sincere apologies are powerful because they clear soul space. That is the spirit of Shabbat Teshuvah — the Sabbath of Return.

Is there someone hurting in your life right now who could be healed by a selfless and sincere apology? Apologies may not always be perfect – but they do set us on a road to liberation.

Shabbat Teshuvah is a time for growth. Sometimes, if it's peace we desire, it's not that important to declare who was wrong and who was right. Sometimes on the path to reconciliation we must put ego aside. Who is that person for you?

Let us set them and ourselves free — through the simple, but liberating, words — “I’m sorry.”


Shanah Tovah. Shabbat Shalom. G'mar chatimah tovah.

May we all inscribe ourselves in the book life, of happiness and forgiveness.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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