The Power of Apology

            August/September 2012    
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Ten Days of Apologies

By Heshy Friedman

The ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur are known as the “Ten Days of Penitence.” Maimonides, codifier of Jewish law, describes how one should do teshuva (penitence). The individual must admit his/her sin, be ashamed of the transgression, and resolve never to do it again. If one has hurt another person physically or financially, paying the victim is necessary but not sufficient. The perpetrator must ask the victim for forgiveness and show sincere remorse. Apologies are an important part of these holy days.

Let us examine what is arguably the worst apology ever. It was on an episode of the classic television show, the Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden is apologizing to his wife, Alice, for calling her mother a blabbermouth (

Hello, Alice. This is me, Ralph. Alice, I'm sorry. I'm miserable without you. Please come back to me, Alice. I apologize for everything I said. I even apologize to your mother. I know she doesn't mean the things she says, Alice. It's just her nature. She doesn't mean to be mean. She's just born that way. When she says things about your old boyfriends and about the furniture in the apartment, I know that she doesn't mean to get me mad. She's just naturally mean, that's all. When she spilled the beans about the end of the play, I shouldn't have got mad at that. I should've expected it from her. I know how she is. She's never gonna be any different, Alice! She's gonna be the same old way, Alice! SHE'S A BLABBERMOUTH, ALICE! A BLABBERMOUTH!

Before apologizing, it might be a good idea to view this video clip so that you know what not to do. That is clearly not the way to show remorse. Neither is telling someone, “I am sorry you feel that way,” or stating that “If anyone has been hurt by my actions, I am sorry.” The fictional television character, Sheldon Cooper’s apology to Dr. Gablehauser, his boss, in the “The Big Bang Theory” is not much better than Ralph Kramden’s: “We may have gotten off on the wrong foot when I called you an idiot. I was wrong... to point it out.”

Remorse is about wishing the past mistake had not occurred and making sure it never happens again. Some use the acronym of the “Five R’s as a way to remember what needs to be done: Recognition, Remorse, Repentance, Restitution, and Request for forgiveness. According to researchers in the area, the main reason that people do not apologize is because they are afraid the apology will be seen as a sign of weakness and/or guilt. In reality, an apology indicates great strength as it is a munificent act that restores and rehabilitates the self-concept of the offended party.

Knowing how to apologize is not only important in interpersonal relations. To this day, the Armenians are distrustful of the Turkish people because they have not expressed remorse for the genocide that occurred almost 90 years ago. Japan’s neighbors are not convinced that Japan is sincerely remorseful over what it did during World War II.

Pope John Paul II made one of the most revolutionary changes in Catholic attitudes towards Jews by the following apology on March 12, 2000:

We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours [the Jewish people] to suffer, and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant ….For the role that each one of us has had, with his behavior, in these evils, contributing to a disfigurement of the face of the Church, we humbly ask forgiveness.

He went to the Western Wall on March 26, 2000 and inserted a kvitel, a small piece of paper, in the cracks, with the following message:

God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.

As the first pope to visit a synagogue and a number of Holocaust sites, he established full diplomatic relations with Israel. This apology did a great deal to improve Catholic-Jewish relations.

Restorative justice, a new approach to criminal justice, is about restoring conditions to the way they were before the crime was committed. With restorative justice, the offender must take responsibility for his actions and understand the harm he has caused. The hope is that the wrongdoer will have a better understanding of the harm he has caused by meeting with the victim, that he will feel true remorse, and apologize for the crime. By apologizing and understanding the harm caused by the crime, the hope is that the perpetrator of the crime will be very reluctant to commit the offense again.

Many medical schools now to teach students to apologize for mistakes rather than try to cover up. Hospitals are finding that apologies by doctors result in fewer malpractice lawsuits than the old approach in which doctors refuse to take responsibility. A number of states have even passed “immunity for apology” laws that enable physicians to apologize and show how sorry they are for what happened without having their own words used against them in litigation.

The corporate world also understands how an apology can undo all kinds of marketing blunders. The apology, however, has to be sincere and form the soul. Jetblue’s founder and CEO, David Neeleman, made a classic apology for flight cancellation chaos that occurred in 2007. The apology appeared in numerous newspapers as well as the company website. A video was posted on YouTube in which the CEO apologized to his customers. Neeleman also used the apology as an opportunity to introduce a JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights.

Dear JetBlue Customers,

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.

Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue’s seven year history. Many of you were either stranded, delayed or had flights cancelled following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast…

Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you, your family, friends and colleagues experienced. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel, and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.

The mitzvah of doing teshuvah is derived from a passage in the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:1-10) where penitence is discussed at length and it is stated that repentance will lead to redemption. The word used in this passage is shuv which literally means to return. Teshuvah involves sincere remorse and returning to God. The prophets exhorted the Jewish people to return to God by embracing good and giving up their bad ways. On Yom Kippur we read the story of Jonah, one of the few successful prophets. He was instrumental in getting the people of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire, to repent and change their behavior. Sincere remorse leads to renewal and growth.

Apologies are so important to Judaism that it is not only humanity that has to use this powerful weapon of reconciliation; the Midrash has God showing remorse.

There is a Midrash (Midrash Zuta, Eichah 1:83) which says that the Jewish people will not accept comfort from God in Messianic times. They will note that Joseph did not avenge himself against his brothers despite the fact that they sold him into slavery. They will complain that God did not show his people mercy, despite the fact that He is (Exodus 34:6-7) referred to as “the God of compassion and mercy.” What is interesting about this Midrash is that it has God making the attempt to apologize to the Jewish people for the horrible things that happened to them over many years of exile.

Another Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:8) offers an interesting interpretation of a verse in Ecclesiastes (4:1). This Midrash has God showing remorse over what His Torah does to the mamzer (bastard). According to Torah law, the mamzer is the offspring of a union that is biblically prohibited such as incest or adultery. The Torah (Deuteronomy 23:3) prohibits the mamzer from entering the “congregation of God” (i.e., the mamzer is limited as to whom s/he is permitted to marry). Since it is the father or mother of the bastard who sinned, why should the children be punished? God recognizes that the law is unfair to the offspring of the perpetrator of the sin and knows that he is the one who has to comfort the mamzer.

If God can apologize, then we so can we. Let’s not be so stubborn. Let’s make the call to a sibling, parent, child, former friend, former partner, and/or ex-spouse and tell them we are sorry for the pain we caused. The physical cost of the apology is small but the benefit ― both physical and emotional ― for both parties is great. It cleanses and renews the soul more than a mikvah or a fast. The “Ten Days of Penitence” provides us all with the perfect excuse to make the call.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 10b, 17a, 18a) relates several stories where one act had a huge, powerful impact and the individual who performed the deed was rewarded with a share in the world to come. When Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the President of the Sanhedrin) heard about them he wept and said: “There is one who acquires eternity in a single moment and there is another who acquires it only after many years [of struggling and suffering].”

The name Yehudah was based on the Hebrew word yadah meaning to give thanks or praise. When Yehudah was born, Leah said: “This time I will praise the Lord.” After the 10 tribes of Israel were exiled by the Assyrians, the tribe of Yehuda was the dominant, remaining tribe and the land became known as Judae. Later in history, all of Jacob’s descendants were called Yehudim. The English word “Jews” is derived from Yehudim. It is interesting to note that the root word, yadah, that is the basis of Yehudah’s name, not only means to praise but also to confess. Yehudah was the first to publicly confess his sins and show remorse for his misdeeds. Indeed, he admitted that he was wrong and that Tamar was more righteous than him (Genesis 38:26). If Yehudah had not confessed, the Jewish people would not exist today, and neither would the Davidic line or the Messiah.

A brief phone call may be the single act that changes your world for all eternity. We are Yehudim; we can give praise but can also say I’m sorry. Make the call; just make sure you don’t follow Ralph Kramden’s example.


from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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