Love Means Saying You're Sorry

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According to the 1970 film Love Story, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  

 

In our polarized society, it often seems as though “never say you’re sorry” has become a life strategy and even a philosophy.  Admitting that we are wrong and apologizing is deemed ill-advised, a show of weakness before one’s adversaries -- and even fundamentally unnecessary. After all, some say, this is a free country; if what one does is illegal, and if one is caught and convicted, one pays for it through the civil and/or criminal justice systems.  Otherwise, why consider any action to be wrong?  

 

So-called “apologies” consist of statements like “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” as if the offended is the offender.  Or, the offender says “That just wasn’t like me,” as if someone else was responsible for temporarily taking over his or her body to do evil.  Years ago, I used to listen to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s advice radio show. I remember her reacting to someone whose apology consisted of “I made a mistake.”  “No,” she said, “making a mistake is grabbing the wrong car keys or transposing the digits in a phone number; what you did was a sin.”  How often do we hear anyone confess that they sinned? And, more importantly, how often do we admit that we did? 

 

I hope it’s obvious that “never say you’re sorry” is very far from what Judaism requires of a moral person.  This week’s Torah portion, Naso (5:6-7), states: 

 

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.

 

Note that there is no reference to Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.”   Confession, sincere expression of regret, restitution, where possible, and changes in behavior are continuing obligations.  

 

In his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, Maimonides describes what he calls the essence of confession: 

 

“… I have sinned, transgressed, and offended before You, and I have done this-and-this. And now I regret, and am ashamed of my deeds, and will never revert to them again." 

 

Regarding private confession, Isaiah Horowitz records that his father made private confession of his sins three times daily: "And every night before he would retire he would list the deeds he performed that day. Then, he would sit alone and contemplate them. He would scrutinize the actions he performed not only that day but all the days of his life up until that point." Horowitz, Shnei Luhot ha-Brit. 3 Vols. Jerusalem: Edison, 1960, p. 171b.       

 

Painful and embarrassing as it might be, we should confess our sins aloud (though not necessarily in the presence of others). The purpose of this private confession, explains Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, is to shock us into righting the wrong we have done. If others are present, we are more likely to try to downplay or rationalize our wrongful behavior. It is usually easier to be honest with ourselves, and about ourselves, when we are alone. By admitting a sin out loud (instead of just mentally acknowledging a wrong we have committed), we will be less likely to try and rationalize it. Also, we are more likely to be horrified by what we have done, and motivated to atone. 

 

Thus, Judaism requires both public – that is, to the victims of our wrongs -- and private confession.  

 

In addition to confession and apology being religious obligations, I would add that they are practical necessities to maintaining healthy relationships.  In their book The Jewish Moral Values, Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz and Frances Weinman Schwartz write: “To get back on good terms, the one who errs must express sorrow for what happened, and the other must find enough compassion to accept this apology. Then mercy takes over, for without it, no relationship long endures.”

 

Occasionally in the newspapers, I read the “secrets” of long-married couples explaining how they were able to stay together.  These secrets often include “total commitment”, “acceptance of the other person for who they are,” and “good communication.”  Rarely, though, do I see among such “secrets” one of the most important elements of my own 47-year marriage: a willingness to admit wrongdoing – that is, our sins -- apologize, and try to change behavior.  Both my wife and I feel better after this occurs, and better about each other, too.  Compassion, forgiveness, and another word we seldom hear today -- redemption -- result from confession.  And, if we are honest, whom among us does not need redemption? 

 

In short, love does mean having to say you’re sorry – often and sincerely, and then acting on those feelings.  

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb