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Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Saying "I'm sorry" enough?

Elul 7

“Don’t say you’re sorry!  Just don’t do it again!”  My father's words from my childhood haunt me still today.  When my siblings or I would do something that would infuriate our father (a frequent occurrence!), he would often refuse to accept our attempts to apologize to him.  “I don’t want to hear you say you’re sorry,” he would say, or scream, depending on the moment.  “I want you to learn from your mistakes, and stop making them!” This was often accompanied by punishments of various sorts, and as you can imagine, we lived in fear of this response, and as a result, we did what we could to avoid his wrath as much as possible.

My father’s angry “wisdom,” such as it was, comes to mind during these days of Elul.  His intention was good, I am certain – he wanted his children to learn and improve our behaviors. There was nothing compassionate about his approach, however. Thankfully, our Jewish tradition suggests a much more compassionate, full and complete path to teshuvah: First, one must admit one’s errors.  Then, one must learn not to repeat the same error if presented with the same opportunity again.  Next, one is to do what is possible to repair the damage or correct the harm done by one’s actions.  This entails going to the person affected by our wrongdoing and asking forgiveness, or if one’s wrongdoing was an affront to God, we must ask God’s forgiveness.  And one must also forgive oneself. 

Saying "I'm sorry" is a great start.  But we need to say it first to ourselves, to others and to God.  And we need to effect change in ourselves that will lead to healthier, more whole lives.  

My father’s method was too harsh, too simplistic, and it ended too early in the process.  He was right, to a degree:  repentance involves learning and changing.  But repentance also involves forgiveness – from the self, from the other, and from God. The gates of forgiveness are always open, of course.

During this month of Elul, may we begin this process of Teshuvah – dedicating ourselves to change, growth and forgiveness.

Rabbi Jim Bennett

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