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Yom Kippur Sermon: Our Apologies

Probably one of the hardest things we do as social beings is to apologize. What makes it so hard? Consider that when you apologize to someone, you are admitting that you did something wrong.

Now the proverbial Pandora’s box is open. If you apologize and did something wrong, you’re not perfect and you’re flawed. There’s goes our self-worth.

But wait, it gets better. By admitting that we are wrong by insinuation, we are vulnerable; we are at the mercy of the other person’s ego. We would like it if they just smile, accept our apology, excuse us and then we can all move on. Lesson for next time to think about the consequences.

Our biggest fear, though, is that they’ll twist the knife. They’ll start demeaning us with catch phrases like, “See?”. Or they’ll interrogate us with probing questions like, “Well, why did you do it?”. Or worst yet, “Do you know how you made me feel?”.

Let’s backtrack and then return to these points.

Someone asked if these ten days of awe, the period between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, are the specific time when we have to apologize for wrongs. Does that also mean that the people we’ve wronged have to wait until then to get their due? Meanwhile, their contempt and disdain for us for committing the infraction grows and grows until who knows how they’ll feel by then?

The reality is that the sooner you apologize to someone, the better. In fact, it’s part of our daily liturgy that we pray three times a day during the secular week—and this is actually part of the Yom Kippur service—that one of the prayers during the weekday Amidah is to state to Hashem, “forgive me for I have sinned, pardon me for I have erred”. The Sages have taught us that for G-d to forgive us, we have to forgive others and our apologies have to be sincere.

Treating people with positive regard is a fulltime, 365 days a year process for us. The ten days of awe are for reflection and it’s to make sure that if you didn’t apologize before, or you questioned whether it really was an offense, this is your chance. When in doubt, apologize anyway. Better safe than sorry. As a past Karate instructor used to say at the end of practice: “Thank you for doing what you’re supposed to do”.

If this is what we’re supposed to do, and someone vicariously smacks us in the face for practicing righteousness, what do we do with that? Most of us know the teaching that we are supposed to ask forgiveness three times. If the person hasn’t relented by then, it’s on them.

Nevertheless, apologizing can be sort of an existential crisis. What if the person does not accept our apology and uses it as an opportunity to demean us and really take revenge? Sure, that thing about the three tries sounds great on paper, but it would be daft on our part to think we can just let it roll off our backs. Just another thing we’ll be thinking about at night as we try to go to bed and watch the minutes tick by as we toss and turn.

Our Torah is all about teaching us always do the right thing in life in whatever situation presents itself. Let’s fill in the blanks here. Let’s talk about the best ways to handle and perceive this situation. Keep in mind as we proceed that while this isn’t necessarily a commandment to apologize, it is a rabbinical directive. It’s also the right thing to do.

We get nervous because we spend our lives valuing our own self-worth by how we perceive others liking us. It’s part of our society & peer pressure. One of the most liberating things we can do is practice being our own reinforcement. Our self-esteem comes from how WE, OURSELVES perceive ourselves, not others. It starts from accepting who we are and loving ourselves unconditionally.

The problem with apologizing, and anything else we do, is that people are going to judge us. Remember, though, that other people have their own agenda. Maybe they don’t feel so good about themselves the way almost the whole world does. Apologizing to them gives them a way to feel better about themselves by demeaning us. If we need to apologize, then we made a mistake, we’re flawed and now they can berate us and feel good about themselves because they didn’t make the mistake so they’re perfect and we’re not. That’s an opportunity for them to feel good because they’re better than we are.

That’s not reality. Here’s reality: the fact that we have the backbone and integrity to admit we made a mistake means we’re strong, not weak. Hashem made us imperfect so we’d have something to do for the 80-or-so years after we come out of the womb. And He, or She, loves it when we grow spiritually.

It’s like anything else: practice makes perfect. The more we display honesty and integrity, and reinforce our own selves, the better we become over time. It’s just a matter of taking the first step.

This year, may you all grow as people and become actualized as you become your own reinforcement.

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