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One of my favorite children’s books for Yom Kippur is Jacqueline Jules’ The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. It’s about the Ziz, an enormous bird with dark red wings and a purple forehead. The Ziz’s giant wings are always knocking things over. One day, after the Ziz mistakenly knocks over a big tree with his wings and the tree then knocks over another tree, which smashes a children’s vegetable garden, the Ziz goes to God and asks God how he can make things better.
God instructs the Ziz to search the earth and bring back “the hardest word.” The Ziz stretches out his big red wings and goes off to search, coming back to God over one hundred times with a variety of words. Each time God sends the Ziz back out, insisting that there is still a harder word.
Finally, the Ziz, discouraged, flies back for one last discussion with God:
“What word did you bring this time?” asks God.
“No word,” the Ziz says quietly.
“No word?” God asks.
“No,” the Ziz says sadly. “I’ve come to say I’m sorry. I can’t find the hardest word.”
“You can’t?” God asks.
“No,” Ziz shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” God asks.
“Yes.” Ziz nods his big purple head. “I’m sorry.”
“Good job!” God says. “You found the hardest word.”
“I did?” wonders the Ziz. At this point, the Ziz is very confused.
“Yes,” God says. “The hardest word is Sorry. While the other words you brought were hard, Sorry is the hardest.”
I love the story of the Ziz because it draws our attention to a universal aspect of human nature: the difficulty of apologizing. Elton John pointed out this fundamental truth years ago with the title to his song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” And if you’re like me and you’re old enough to remember the TV show Happy Days, you may recall how Fonzie, the cool guy who all the guys wanted to be like and all the girls wanted to date, struggled whenever he had to even admit that he was wrong, let alone apologize. In one episode, when Mrs. Cunningham, a woman Fonzie greatly respects who’s like a surrogate mother to him, tells him that he has to be an adult and apologize to a guy named Roger, Fonzie finally says: “Alright look, I went a little nutso, alright. So the whole thing was my fuhvv-vu-vu…and I’m really suzz-zzz-zzz. Alright?”
Apologizing was SO HARD for Fonzie that he couldn’t even pronounce the word “sorry.” I, for one, can relate. And I know that I’m not alone. Mental health professionals have pointed out that many people view apologizing as a sign of weakness. The perception is that the person who apologizes is the “loser,” whereas the person who receives the apology is the “winner.” Apologizing can make us feel vulnerable—like we’re losing power, or even control. Like Fonzie, most of us don’t like the feeling of not being in control—too often we let our pride get in the way and prevent us from apologizing.
But in reality, apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It takes strength to exhibit the moral character necessary to offer an apology, thereby admitting that you’ve hurt someone or done something wrong.
And think about it: Have you ever regretted apologizing to someone? If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t, or at least not often. For most of us, the time leading up to offering an apology is stressful, but once we’ve gotten over the hump of saying “I’m sorry,” it’s usually a big relief. In the best of situations, an apology is accepted. But even when an apology isn’t accepted, when it’s offered sincerely, we at least have the consolation of knowing that we’ve tried to make things better.
On the other hand, have you ever regretted NOT apologizing to someone? For most of us, the answer to this question is “yes.” Surely, if we take the time to think about it, we can all point to times when we didn’t say “I’m sorry,” even though we now wish we had.
The Jewish New Year is an ideal time to reflect on the year that has just passed and think about those people to whom we owe apologies. Jewish tradition urges us to recount the people we’ve wronged in the past year and to apologize and ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, but it also has the potential to be one of the most powerful words—a word of restoration, a word of healing and a word of starting over.
I can think of several people I want to apologize to before Yom Kippur for things I’ve done in the past year: my husband; my children; some friends and colleagues. I know that apologizing won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s worth it, and that the year ahead will be better because of it.
What about you? Have you ever regretted apologizing? Have you ever regretted NOT apologizing? Do you plan to apologize to anyone in preparation for Yom Kippur?
This essay was reprinted with permission from J. Weekly.
Earlier this month I was the rabbi at the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries’ biennial conference at City of Refuge Church in Oakland. I was invited to blow the shofar for the new Hebrew month of Av, and I lit candles to usher in Shabbat before the worship began. I returned to my seat, filled with love for the extraordinary Christian leaders I had met that day, honored to bring a taste of Judaism into their prayer space and feeling welcomed as someone who had entered that morning as an outsider, now an insider sharing a sacred moment.
Then came the scriptural reading from the New Testament: “Everything [the Pharisees] do is done for people to see. … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:5, 27, 28).
How should I react? Was anyone looking at me? Do I show my discomfort as a Jew listening to these words? I tried to be invisible, wondering if anyone who was standing up and calling out affirmations of this reading might be associating me, the very public representation of Judaism at this gathering, with a Pharisee. Were the rituals Matthew was criticizing related to ones I just performed? Were they viewed as empty, for show?
It was mere minutes later that I felt a tap on my shoulder. The presiding pastor presented a handwritten note. “Please forgive me for my choice of scripture, which I’m sure was painful to hear. … I felt pain as I listened. … and apologize for any harm this may have done to your heart just after you gifted us with a Sabbath Blessing.” I caught her eye, expressing how deeply this touched me. Her apology doesn’t erase the reality of the text existing, or being read as sacred Scripture, nor should it. But it brought me peace.
What followed was a regular part of the weekly liturgy at her church. The entire congregation recited a five-minute “Confession for the misuse and abuse of Scripture” that speaks, among other things, to the harm done to Jews and others as a result of the misuse of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. At this point, feeling a swell of gratitude, I wondered if we Jews ever ask publicly for forgiveness for any harm our texts have caused. In drashes, I have condemned our use of anti-gay verses, I have openly challenged Torah that oppresses women or further disempowers the powerless. But do we ever apologize directly to the people sitting among us who are squirming in their seats as a result of our words?
Because I was the direct recipient of someone’s confession, my mind is fixed on the people who sit and listen to sacred text being chanted in our sanctuaries. For the first time in a long stretch of history, a large percentage of people sitting in services are not Jewish. Most of them have entered our holy spaces because they love someone who is, and many have made personal sacrifices to raise Jewish families. This Shabbat, they may open the Chumash and read, “You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and God’s anger will blaze forth against you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
This week, I would ask forgiveness from interfaith couples who came to synagogue in support of their Jewish families. They might historicize these verses (this addressed long-gone nations and a nascent people) or even think about our contemporary interreligious battles (Jews worry that their kids might worship the god of the very people who have tried to extinguish them for centuries). But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.
If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?
I admit it – I was raised to think that intermarriage is wrong. It has taken awhile but I now am embarrassed by some of the comments I might have made when friends told me they were marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was insensitive. On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I have offended. In many instances, I may not have said anything, but the negative thoughts crossed my mind and an expression of disapproval may have crossed my face. Again, I apologize.
In my defense, we all are evolving. We all say things that might have been inappropriate. I don’t lose sleep over insensitive comments I may have made 10 years ago. I was young. I was immature. I am not perfect. I try not to let guilt consume me, but there is a fine line between being conscientious and guilt ridden!
But here is something I hadn’t thought of until a few months ago: Our comments leave scars. I know that I offended some people and that they remember my comment or look of disapproval. So, even though I have evolved, I may have hurt their feelings and I suspect they still remember it. In fact, my act of disapproval may be the last (and only) thing they remember about me. Who was I to judge?
This reminds me of the old Kabbalah story where a child says bad things about someone to a friend. Madonna and Loren Long have rewritten this story for today’s family in Mr. Peabody’s Apples. In this story, Mr. Peabody is an elementary school teacher and baseball coach, who one day finds himself ostracized when a child misinterprets an incident and then spreads rumors through their small town. Mr. Peabody silences the gossip by teaching the child how we must choose our words carefully to avoid causing harm to others. The child is told to take a pillow to the baseball field and tear it open. The wind is blowing and all of the feathers fly everywhere. Mr. Peabody asks the child to collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The child tells him that it is impossible. Like feathers in the wind, we can’t put our words back in our mouths.
Since we can’t take our words or acts back once they are out there, this Yom Kippur I want to say:
1) I apologize for any words, actions or thoughts that may have been insensitive.
2) To anyone who might have offended me, I forgive you and know that we are all evolving. Hopefully, we can all evolve a little faster before we hurt anyone else’s feelings.
I wish for all of us that our personal journeys take us to a place of kindness and understanding. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.