Yom Kippur is “The Day of Atonement,” the day of saying you’re sorry. The whole week leading up to Yom Kippur we’re supposed to apologize to people we’ve wronged. In Jewish thought, God can’t forgive you for things you do to other people, only they can do that. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins and the sins of our community and we make plans to do better. Then we eat bagels and kugel and drink a Coke.
My Great Uncle Larry, a retired doctor by the time I knew him, always handed me a Coke at Break the Fast. In the old days, Coke had cocaine and was great for getting rid of a post-fasting headache. Even now, the sugar and caffeine works pretty well.
The Coke was always a treat, but the main point of Yom Kippur is the apologizing and atoning. I read a lot of advice columns and there’s a lot of emphasis not on apologizing, but on forgiving. “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself,” is a commonly used phrase. Forgiving is for your own peace of mind, not the benefit of the person who harmed you.
I’m not great at forgiveness. I hold grudges. I know that forgiveness is important, it’s something I work on regularly. But also, I think we’ve lost a little emphasis on the importance of apologizing. It’s as though we’ve all turned into the kid forced to apologize who asks, “Why should I apologize when I’m not sorry?” The answer? “Because it makes the world run more smoothly.”
The other day on Facebook (the market square of the Covid era) a woman in a local resale group attempted to sell a throw pillow with a picture of farm animals and the phrase “All Lives Matter” on it.
She was immediately taken to task. Several people gave her the benefit of the doubt and, assuming that she was a nice vegan not a racist bitch, explained to her why the pillow was offensive. A few others assumed (correctly it turns out) that she knew what she was doing and told her off. She held her ground. She gathered supporters. She refused to apologize because she “hadn’t meant harm.” The moderator of the group removed the post and issued a warning about trying to use her group to promote racism.
I remain baffled by the refusal to apologize for causing harm.
If you are walking down the street on your phone and you accidentally step on someone else’s toes, there are a few ways they might respond. They might say, “Excuse me sir, you stepped on my toe.” They might say, “Buddy, watch where you’re going.” They might even say “Hey asshole, get off my foot.” No matter how they respond, most of us would know that we, as the person who stepped on the foot, owed the person an apology. We wouldn’t insist that because we didn’t mean to step on the foot, we shouldn’t apologize and should leave our foot there.
You probably wouldn’t even argue that the person who reacts in pain and surprise and calls you an asshole, doesn’t deserve an apology. You definitely wouldn’t leave your foot there. You’d apologize, you’d move your foot, and hopefully you’d be more careful in the future. All without ever having to whine that “you didn’t mean to hurt the person” or challenging your view of yourself as a good person who doesn’t go around jumping on people’s feet.
Whether by accident or on purpose, when you hurt someone, you apologize. It’s simple, it’s easy, it makes the world run smoother.
The list of sins we confess to on Yom Kippur (known as the Al Chet, no relation to Ben Hecht, the 1940s screenwriter) is famously long and a little ridiculous. We apologize not just for our own sins, but the sins of others as well. It may seem like overkill, but I’m thinking today, we could all use a little practice apologizing.