Jewish Holidays Jewish Life

High Holidays: I’m sorry. So sorry.

By Mark Mietikiewicz

We are well into the Jewish month of Elul and with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner, this is the traditional time for repentance and forgiveness. What does that mean if you have wronged a friend or loved one?
Repentance at this time of year often takes the form of reciting a set liturgy while striking your chest with your fist (and then acting on your resolve). [] So if we repent, doesn’t God forgive us for all our misdeeds? Not quite. Rabbi David Brofsky quotes from the Mishna, “For sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow.” []
And according to Judaism, saying sorry just isn’t enough. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains, “Jewish tradition holds that teshuva consists of several stages: The sinner must recognize his sin, feel sincere remorse, undo any damage he has done and pacify the victim of his offense, and resolve never to commit the sin again.” []
Jane Ulman brings that down to earth in her article, “For Jews, forgiveness was never meant to be easy.” To get the point across to her young children, she told them about one of her “memorable childhood transgressions” when as a preteen she “stole several lipsticks and some makeup from the local five-and-dime. When I came home, my mother discovered the stolen goods, eliciting tears and an immediate confession. She drove me back downtown where I asked to see the store manager. Embarrassed, apprehensive and contrite, I returned the items to him, apologized and offered to pay. I have not shoplifted since.”
Ulman continues, “how much easier it would be to avoid discussions of wrongs, to not ask forgiveness of people we have injured, to not make our children return to the store where they have stolen something. How much easier it would be to abdicate personal responsibility and to espouse universal forgiveness.” []
What if your apology hasn’t been well received? quotes Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law: “when you ask someone for forgiveness, he or she is allowed to turn you down. If this happens, you should return a second and third time, with three witnesses, and try apologizing again. If the victim won’t forgive you after three tries, then you’re considered to have atoned, even if you haven’t been granted forgiveness.” []
But what if we aren’t given the opportunity to enter into dialogue with a person we hurt? In that case, Dalia Marx suggests that “we can nonetheless incorporate our feeling of remorse into a new commitment to becoming a person of greater truth and honesty, actively striving to bring blessings to our world. As the Kotzker Rebbe purportedly said: ‘There is nothing more complete than a broken heart.’ Sometimes our very brokenness can lead us to tikkun (repairing and mending).” []
Rabbi Neil Tow writes that even if the person we wronged has died, Jewish tradition says our act of asking forgiveness should be a public one. Rabbi Yosi ben Chanina tells us in the Talmud that “we gather a minyan, ten people, at the grave and recite the formula: I have sinned against Ado-nai, the God of Israel, and against this person whom I wronged.” (Yoma 87a) []
Now that you are motivated, offers the following advice (for lovers of acronyms):
C – Confess without excuse.
O – Offer an apology that you don’t want to do it again.
N – Note the other person’s pain.
F – Forever value. Explain that you value your relationship and want to restore it.
E – Equalize. Ask how you can make it up to the person.
S – Say “never again.” Promise that you won’t do it again (and mean it).
S – Seek forgiveness. Ask the other person directly, “Can you forgive me?”

Mark Mietkiewicz can be reached at

Kolot – Almost A Mother

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