“For the sin we committed before You with verbal confession.”
We are always apologizing. New research contends that most of us apologize about four times a week. We say sorry all of the time. Reading the findings might lead us to believe that as people we are honest, generally contrite, humble, able to confront our mistakes and also take accountability for them – until you read further; we actually apologize 22 percent more to strangers than to romantic partners and family.
And, contrary to popular opinion, men will apologize just as often as women if they feel they’ve done something wrong. Therein lies the discrepancy. Women tend to believe that they’ve done something wrong more often than men. Women also tend to get offended more easily than men. This means that women both say they’re sorry and need others to apologize more often than men. In one study, 120 subjects imagined committing offenses, from being rude to a friend to inconveniencing another person they live with; researchers discovered that men apologized less frequently than women. The researchers concluded that men had a higher threshold for what they found offensive. “We don’t think that women are too sensitive or that men are insensitive,” says Karina Schumann, one of the study’s authors. “We just know that women are more sensitive.”1See Elizabeth Bernstein’s article, which cites the studies “I’m Very, Very, Very Sorry…Really?” in the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304410504575560093884004442.html.
This new research on the act of saying sorry also deals with the content of apologies and what people need to hear in order to grant sincere forgiveness. A “comprehensive” apology is more likely to win forgiveness, researchers say. According to a study conducted by the University of Waterloo, comprehensive apologies consist of eight elements:
Acceptance of responsibility
Admission of wrongdoing
Acknowledgment of harm
Promise to behave better
Request for forgiveness
Offer of repair
If any piece of this process is absent, it could compromise the acceptance of an apology. Sorry alone is not enough. Sorry without regret or admission of wrongdoing will not change the future. We may think that most people who hear us apologize do not want an explanation. “Just say sorry. I don’t need to know why you did it.” But what we are learning is that sorry without an explanation can leave the recipient feeling empty and unsatisfied. Sometimes when people hurt us, even inadvertently, they become an enigma to us. It can be hard to understand how and why someone acts differently than we would, especially when it comes to shameful, hurtful, or offensive behavior.
For this reason, the act of confession forces us to be more honest with ourselves before we apologize. This season requires difficult self-confrontation. We read words that may or may not force us to revisit the darker sides of self in search of clarity or to rebuild a relationship. By externalizing the words in confession, we begin to hear them differently and get insight into how someone else might hear and receive our words of forgiveness.
The language of confession we use in our prayerbooks is excerpted in part from the book of Daniel. Daniel realized that his people were suffering and that he had failed to be as brutally honest as necessary in his leadership:
I turned my face to the Lord God, devoting myself to prayer and supplication, in fasting, in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God, making confession thus: “O Lord, great and awesome God, who stays faithful to His covenant with those who love Him and keep His commandments! We have sinned; we have gone astray, we have acted wickedly; we have been rebellious and have deviated from Your commandments and Your rules, and have not obeyed Your servants the prophets who spoke in Your name to our kings, our officers, our fathers, and all the people of the land.” (Daniel 9:3–6)
While the English may feel foreign, Daniel’s Hebrew is painfully familiar:
חָטָאנוּ וְעָוִינוּ, הִרְשַׁעְנוּ וּמָרָדְנוּ; וְסוֹר מִמִּצְוֹתֶךָ, וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ.
This is the language that jumps off the pages of the Maĥzor, our High Holiday prayerbook, and into our most vulnerable places. It is the language of confession, and it is thousands of years old. Maimonides writes that confession is an elemental aspect of repentance, and repentance cannot be complete without it. Why not?
Confession is another word for naming. Instead of a personal problem resting in the cloud of words not articulated, confession forces us to put a name on an issue. Often naming a problem creates a path out of the problem. Those struggling with addiction in one of its many forms often cannot confess to the problem. The minute they can finally name it, they can begin to tackle it. Without a name, a problem will never be properly addressed. Without confession, there is no redemption. Rabbi Kook wrote that repentance actually begins the moment we commit a sin if we have an awareness of sin; the very recognition of an act of wrongdoing precipitates the beginning of teshuva, the road back to the self that is the emotionally and spiritually desired self.
Confession is a loaded English word that is not necessarily an accurate translation of the Hebrew word vidui. Naming, recognition, or acknowledgment may be more apt. In Deuteronomy, when Moses prepared the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, he told them that when they harvested their first fruits, they had to bring a basket of them to the Temple along with a verbal confession that begins with a brief history of our people. The history includes our most ancient ancestors, our servitude in Egypt, and the Exodus, and then finally our arrival in Israel and our new bounty. The food was to be left with God and then the person who brought it was to rejoice and “enjoy all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (26:11). This was a time of joy, not confession in its traditional, more oppressive sense. There is no confession of sin in this acknowledgment; merely a recognition, a naming, of all that has led up to this particular moment of gratitude. It is basket happiness – our joy is contained in something concrete that we are able to share with others.
The vidui bikurim, the name of this verbal offering, does review swaths of painful history. It mentions tribulations not worth repeating. And yet, each of those experiences must be mentioned because each went into the production and growth of every piece of fruit, as does every famine, rainfall, tragedy, and celebration. The pilgrimage would not have the same meaning, or the joy the same richness, if it all came easily. Confession helps us name all the parts of a process that lead up to a particular outcome.
Maimonides praised those who confessed in public, who had the courage to denounce personal wrongdoing to others.2Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 2:5. This was regarded as a higher level of commitment to teshuva precisely because exposing our weaknesses forces others to become witnesses to our transformation. But Maimonides also made a distinction between public confession of sins between human beings and sins between a person and God. In the latter category, he writes: “But sins between man and God should not be made public, and he is brazen-faced if he does so.”3Ibid. Public confession assumes a greater level of honesty unless it is about a public performance. No sincerity required. When confession acts as false piety it fails the lie detector test.
In his master work, On Repentance, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik pondered Maimonides’ distinction between confession to God and fellow humans: “At times, a man may confess and declare his sins as a means of winning public approval, so that others will admire him and say, ‘what a righteous man he is!’…. What the public thinks of him cannot matter when he stands ‘before God, blessed be He.’”4Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, On Repentance (Jerusalem: Oroth Publishing House, 1980), 89. If honesty is what we are ultimately seeking, then confession can be confession only if it provokes truth, not if it masks lies.
Facing the truth rather than masking a lie takes us to the bed of a virile King David, crippled by the news that the child born of his illicit relationship with Bathsheba was ill to the point of death. The chapter that relays the narrative begins with the ominous words: “But the Lord was displeased with what David had done” (II Samuel 12:1). Nathan the prophet offered David a parable to help the king understand how wrong his affair with Bathsheba had been, a tale of sordid adultery, murder, and deception. Through the subtlety of Nathan’s parable, David was able to loosen his defenses and confess: “I stand guilty before the Lord” (12:13). David was able to hear Nathan because the prophet’s creative framework did not let David escape from confrontation with sin. Nathan added another dimension to his chastisement. He helped this confused king understand that he had overreached, that he had been blessed with so much that his greedy desire for this woman should have been curbed by his already overflowing bounty. Nathan expressed it as if from God’s very mouth:
It was I who anointed you king over Israel and it was I who rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and possession of your master’s wives; and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah and if that were not enough, I would give you twice as much. Why then have you flouted the command of the Lord and done what displeases Him? (12:7–9)
God gave David everything: power, prestige, and intelligence. Did David not have enough that he needed more, another man’s wife? Since David arranged for Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to be killed by the sword, he would suffer the sword’s ugliest wounds himself: “Therefore the sword shall never depart from your house…. I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house” (12:10–11).
God’s words implied a military upheaval in the future, but God made no mention of the battlefield, the place of David’s many successes. David had approached Goliath with stones; his physical strength and military acumen were well-known by this point in his story. The battles David could not win were those that touched his own home life.
Nathan pronounced the punishment: “The child about to be born to you shall die” (12:14). After Nathan left the royal palace, the child became critically ill. David prayed and fasted. His servants tried to feed him, but he refused. A week after Nathan left, the child died, but David’s servants were too afraid to tell him. Since David had not listened to their adjurations to eat, they were certain he would not accept the bad news, that he would do something terrible. They were wrong. David saw the servants speaking in whispers to each other and then he understood what had happened. He forced them to be honest:
“Is the child dead?”
We hear the anguish of the question and the anguish of the answer. There was no room for grey. Honesty stood starkly and painfully alone.
David washed and changed his clothes, went to pray, and then asked for a meal. The servants were again confused. How was it that their king rejected all food when this infant was sick but once the child died, he was able to eat? David responded with clarity. When the child was ill, perhaps there was still some small hope for compassion. But once the boy was dead, David knew that he had to face the brutal truth: “Now that the child is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall never come back to me” (12:23).
The truth hurts. It hurts more than any lie we could tell ourselves. But the truth is not going away.
King Solomon saw this stubborn tendency when he finished building the First Temple and contemplated whether or not God could ever be limited to any space. King Solomon understood the function that the building might one day have far into the future, describing life not in the land of Israel but in the Diaspora at the hand of enemies. The Temple would then have a different function; it would become a holy space, only aspirational in nature, precisely because the pattern of sin and forgiveness is predictable:
When they sin against You – for there is no man who does not sin – and You are angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and their captors carry them off to an enemy land, near or far, and they take it to heart in the land to which they have been carried off, and they repent and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying: “We have sinned, we have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly,” and they turn back to You with all their heart and soul, in the land of the enemies who have carried them off, and they pray to You in the direction of their land which You gave to their fathers, of the city which You have chosen, and of the house which I have built to Your name – give heed in Your heavenly abode to their prayer and supplication, uphold their cause, and pardon Your people who have sinned against You for all the transgressions that they have committed against You. Grant them mercy. (I Kings 8:46–50)5I am grateful to my husband for this observation.
We turn our hearts away. We sin. We suffer. We turn our hearts towards. God hears. God redeems. We turn our hearts away…. King Solomon offers an ancient theological equivalent of “lather, rinse, repeat.” It happened before. It will happen again. And again.
As a result, we often hear an apology and judge it as insincere or simply false. It does not sound like the truth. After all, we apologize for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with the truth: to get out of trouble, because it is expected, to end an argument, out of politeness, to repair a relationship, to move on. These are all valid reasons but are not honest responses; when we apologize for any of these reasons, we are not necessarily engaging in a serious reckoning on a specific problem. Just watch the way people ask for forgiveness in Jewish settings about this time of the year. I distinctly remember in high school the day before Yom Kippur, we would walk down the halls asking anyone and everyone for meĥila, for forgiveness, with spitfire speed but with hardly a moment for any authentic response. We never anticipated someone turning around and saying, “Actually, you really hurt me this past year.” We waited for the hasty “yes” and for the question to be reciprocated at a fast enough pace to allow us to move on to someone else. The apology is regarded as the formal pass that lets us continue or progress. It’s not about process; it’s about a shallow fulfillment of a legal requirement. It’s not about truth; it’s about peace.
And we even force-feed this peace to ourselves, instead of confronting the truth, with a nightly prayer before going to sleep. We grant forgiveness to everyone who may have insulted us intentionally or unintentionally, even though they may have no idea that we are nursing a wound:
Master of the Universe, I forgive anyone who angered or troubled me or wronged me, whether to my person, my finances, my dignity or any other offense – whether it was done under coercion or done as an act of will, accidentally or intentionally, with words or with actions, in this life or another. [I extend this forgiveness] to any individual and ask that no one be punished on my account. May it be Your will, My Lord, God and the God of my ancestors that I will sin no more nor return to those ways, neither will I anger You nor do anything bad in Your eyes. May the wrongs that I have done be erased by Your infinite compassion but not through suffering or sickness. May the words of my heart find favor before You, God, My Rock and Redeemer.
Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the Hafetz Hayim, wrote in his legal commentary – composed at the turn of the twentieth century – that the daily recitation of this prayer could extend one’s life. Perhaps he did not mean it as a medical guarantee but rather as an observation about what cuts life short. The stress of lying in bed stewing over an insult or patching a bruised ego can shorten one’s life, if not in actual duration then in quality. Pick truth or pick peace. You can have one, but you cannot have both.
Truth or peace.
Because our apologies are not always real apologies, we find ourselves visiting and revisiting familiar problems. Every year, we find ourselves asking forgiveness from the same people for the same offenses. Every year, we recommit ourselves to work on the same self-improvement projects we’ve pledged ten times before. Every year, on wedding anniversaries, we celebrate the number of years we have had the same argument. Is it any wonder that we confess to empty confessions every Yom Kippur? “For the sin we committed before You with verbal confession.”
Truth (emet) and peace (shalom) rarely live together compatibly. You can be honest or you can love people. Any uncomfortable mix of both will usually involve compromising one of these two priorities. We find this oddly demonstrated in one of the most moving prayers of these Days of Awe. Towards the end of “Hineni” – the prayer said by the cantor or prayer leader before the Musaf service – we find truth and peace in a happy marriage: “May they love truth and peace, and may there be no impediment in my prayer.” If you know Hebrew grammar you can appreciate that the tenses are not properly aligned, and if you are a student of the Hebrew Bible, you may recognize the first clause of this sentence from the book of Zechariah (8:19). A more precise translation renders the expression differently: “You must love honesty and integrity.”
Our prayer leader is telling us that we must love honesty and integrity in order to pray with sincerity and that he hopes his prayers will be heard and accepted on behalf of the community. We have a job to do, and he has a job to do.
The chapter from which this clause is excerpted is about exile and redemption and the fasts that mark the destruction of Jerusalem. Zechariah told the Israelites that these fast days would one day turn into times of happiness, with the tail admonition: You must love honesty and integrity. Some medieval commentaries regard the clause as conditional. If you are honest and upright, God will uphold his promises. Abraham ibn Ezra (d. 1167) is more radical in his interpretation. He regards the repetition of fasting as a form of questioning posed to the prophet: do we have to fast again and again? To this Zechariah answers, “If you are honest and a person of integrity you will never have to fast again. All the fast days will be turned into days of celebration.”
The combination of emet and shalom is not unusual in the Bible, and is even repeated in the same chapter of Zechariah. It also appears in the very last verse of the book of Esther. But no matter how often the values are placed side-by-side, they always live in dialectic tension. Truth is usually uncompromising, rigid, just, hard, and unyielding. We see peace as a value because it is compromising, bendable, negotiable, flexible, even resigned at times. These two values cannot live together. You cannot be compromising and uncompromising at the same time. How can God demand that we love two acts or traits or ways of being that cannot coexist? Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “No man speaks the truth or lives a true life two minutes together.”6Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1835–1838 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 22. Also available online at http://archive.org/stream/cu31924021990217/cu31924021990217_djvu.txt. Perhaps the cantor asks something of us that he knows we can never deliver. It might be easier to sing while fasting than for us to live with our assignment.
This dichotomy is the basis of many famous works of literature, from Victor Hugo to Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne. People hold up one act of injustice, one stolen loaf of bread, one crime, and can never forgive it, despite other acts of kindness or a general context of goodness. Even in the face of profound repentance, those who love narrow justice believe that every wrongdoing mounts against us.
But we do not have to look to literature to show us the uneasiness of these values in confrontation with each other. Every day we are faced with a media barrage of truth in battle with peace. Fundamentalists the world over believe that there is truth with a capital “T” and cannot make peace. They are unable to see beyond their own reality and recognize the reality of another. Protracted political battles ensue over these values. Lives are lost because we are unable to make sense of these three Hebrew words, “Ha’emet v’hashalom ehavu,” in the “Hineni” prayer.
We may gain clarity on the relationship of truth and peace from another verse in Zechariah where these values also appear: “These are the things you are to do: speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates” (9:16). The French medieval exegete Rabbi David Kimhe, known as the Radak, explained that one should avoid saying one thing with the heart and another with the mouth, and that if one judges with integrity, one will create peace. Rashi interpreted this to mean that one must say what must be said privately but judge transparently. A later commentator, Rabbi David Altshuler, the Metzudat David, commenting on Zechariah 9:16, warned: “When you corrupt justice, you create neither truth nor peace.”
Literature sustains tension to retain interest, so we find peace versus truth as a leitmotif in many fine novels. But in life, our responsibility is to minimize tensions and not to pit values against each other, which can cause grave confusion and confound judgment. People of integrity have to know, as the prophet Zechariah advised, when to be flexible and when to be inflexible, when to compromise and when to stand on principle, when to hold back and when to hold forth. And they must know when a commitment to too much honesty may cause strife and despair. Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931), the Lebanese-American poet, said: “Say not that I have found the truth but rather, ‘I have found a truth.’”7Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1923), 54.
We cannot embody truth over peace, one value over another. We must profoundly love both, even if circumstances ask for one response over another at times. That is why it is so hard to ask for forgiveness. And that is why it is so hard to grant forgiveness.
The cantor works hard on these days, but he also has it easy. The cantor must ask God to listen to prayers on our behalf. We, on the other hand, have to be worthy of them. We have to love truth and peace and hold them in proper balance. The cantor sings it for us so that we may live it. And by putting two contradictory impulses next to each other and forcing them into a relationship, we are asked to contemplate Walt Whitman’s confounding statement in Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We cannot love peace and truth in equal measure all of the time, but we understand on these holiest of days that honesty consists of holding them both in our hands when we make judgments; we contain multitudes. If we ask, every day of these ten days, that God balance truth and peace, justice and mercy, on the divine scale when judging us, we, too, must learn how to balance the scales.
Honesty lies somewhere between truth and peace. Wisdom demands that we face difficult truths, but also that we cushion truths when their brutality obstructs our relationships or our attempts at self-improvement. Peace, too, must prevail in our far-from-ideal world. It, too, has an important place in the realm of honesty. “God protects the honest,” Psalms tells us (31:24). We enjoy divine protection when we strive to balance two foundational values of our tradition. Let honesty be our hallmark.
Can you hold truth and peace in a loving relationship with each other? This year, as you review your parenting, consider whether you have achieved the proper balance between being compromising and uncompromising with your children? Have you done so with your spouse, your parents, your friends? At school or at work, have you known when to stand on principle and when to let go, when to be harsh and critical and when to show compassion? Have you been too harsh on yourself or not harsh enough? Have you faced truths about your faults or made a too-easy peace with them?
In our house, at the meal before Yom Kippur starts, everyone receives the questions below on a sheet of paper. After writing the answers, each person at the table receives an envelope containing all of the answers to the same questions from previous years. We read them to ourselves and then deposit our new sheet and our old ones in an envelope and date it. The envelopes keep getting bigger. Sometimes we realize that we have been able to meet challenges that we had identified in the past. At other times, we find ourselves repeating the same transgressions or working on the same relationship year after year. Feel free to use these questions at your table or review them in your mind. The idea is to take small steps, to move teshuva from impossibility to possibility, to be as honest as possible:
• Think of one person you have hurt this year. How can you fix it?
• What is one small and realistic thing you can do to make yourself a better person this year?
• What can you do this year to be a better student or professional?
• What is one thing you really want to pray for this year?
• What is one thing you can do to strengthen your relationship with God this year?
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 9:1
We are promised by the Torah that if we fulfill it with joy and good spirit and meditate on its wisdom at all times, [God] will remove all the obstacles that prevent us from fulfilling it, for example, sickness, war, famine and the like. Similarly, He will grant us all the good that will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as plenty, peace, an abundance of silver and gold in order that we not be involved throughout all our days in matters required by the body, but rather, will sit unburdened and [thus, have the opportunity to] study wisdom and perform mitzvot in order that we will merit the life of the world to come.
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 11: “The Particulars of Cleanliness”
Lying is a terrible illness that has spread far-reaching among men. There are various levels of this sin. There are some whose profession itself is lying, who go around inventing stark falsehoods in order to promote social intercourse or to be reckoned among the wise and informed. In relation to them it is said (Proverbs 12:22) “The abomination of God is lying lips,” and (Isaiah 59:3) “Your lips speak falsehood, your tongues give voice to wrong.”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 13:9
The inner moral sense calls out to man: Son of man, turn back from your sins! Sometimes the call is so loud that it disturbs all the harmonious balance of life. A person must then rise to a higher spiritual standard in order to stabilize his inner world, but here he will need the help of courage. A person’s inner courage must come to his aid when he goes through the most serious spiritual crisis.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• What is the ideal picture of life created in the texts above?
• What are the obstacles that get in the way of human perfection?
• How does dishonesty behave as an obstruction to the life of goodness?