Ask the Rabbis: What’s the Best Way to Ask for Forgiveness?
Politicians, we well know, are specialists at avoiding responsibility for their actions gone awry and their insensitive misstatements that bring hurt. “If I happened to offend you,” one will say, “which isn’t at all clear to me, then please accept my apology.”
Unfortunately, there’s a little bit of the politician in all of us. We have been cautioned to beware of admitting error, fault or failure. It may be construed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability that could lead to our downfall. But the “sin of denial” can often be more weighty and damning than the wrongdoing that was committed in the first place.
It is also too easy to confess collectively a litany of transgressions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, famously, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.” However, our annual Ashamnu recitation—that alphabetical list of wrongdoings recited on Yom Kippur—gets us off painlessly. It provides easy deniability and lets us hide in the crowd as we merge our faults into a sea of communal confession. The real challenge is asking for forgiveness personally and directly, without the protection of the community.
The first step is to admit to ourselves that we did something wrong. This actually takes courage because it is so counterintuitive to our natural survival instincts. But when we own up to our actions and admit our faults, we actually show a sign of strength. That’s why we tell children that telling the truth about what they did is praiseworthy even if the deed itself was reprehensible.
Next, we need to forgive our own imperfections. We must acknowledge our foibles and flawed humanity, our clay feet, as it were. If we are too harsh on ourselves and unsparing, we will not be able to ask forgiveness from another.
This leads us, of course, to the final step, accepting another’s request for forgiveness by us. As a friend has written, “If I cannot be perfect, I can hardly expect other people to be.” If we want others to cut us some slack we must do them the same kindness.
Repentance and repairing our wrongs is a life-long endeavor, not reduced to an hour or two a few days a year. In fact, it takes regular, daily practice to get good at it. It is always time to utter words of true repentance, to take stock, settle up our account and go forth—to a life renewed and repaired and forgiving.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for
New York, NY
The Hebrew word for forgiveness, s’lee’chah, is mentioned in the Tenach in reference to sins between mortals and God (Numbers 14:19-20; Deuteronomy 29:19; Second Kings 24:4; Isaiah 54:7; Amos 7:2), not between one mortal and another. For that, Judaism offers us a more pragmatic term: m’chee’lah, which implies beginning, as in a plea to begin to forgive. We often forgive too quickly, only to have our anger resurface again, as good as unforgiven.
Our tradition therefore teaches that asking for, and offering, forgiveness is a process. There is simply no cold-turkey approach.
Why apologize? We apologize because what the Creator desires most is for Creation to exist in harmony. The third-century Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi taught that so great is the pursuit of harmony that even if we prayed to idols, but were at peace with one another, God would ignore the idolatry worship “because there is peace between them” (Midrash B’reishet Rabbah 38:6).
There are as many ways to ask for forgiveness as there are people to apologize to and situations to apologize for. Because each person experiences pain differently, for “no one can know what is in the heart of another” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 54b). Begin your apology by articulating your understanding of how much that person was offended. To do this properly you must not base your understanding of the offense on how you yourself would have felt had it been done to you. Rather, what is minimal hurt to you can be of enormous hurt to another. Remember that while we are all one, we are not all the same.
Sometimes words aren’t enough. And only if a similar situation repeats itself and you behave differently is there any chance of rebuilding trust and eliminating any doubt in the sincerity of your apology. But if such an opportunity to prove yourself doesn’t occur, then do your best to improve your conduct within other areas of your relationship with the person in question, and allow for healing to come naturally with time.
And if, after every effort, the other still refuses to hear your apology, the Torah tells us “not to take the failure thereof upon yourself” (Leviticus 19:17). We are not expected to resolve everything, only to make the effort (Babylonian Talmud, A’vot 2:16).
In teaching our children about apologetics, we need first to teach them about human fallibility—to impress upon them that even grown-ups make mistakes, lose their temper, or forget a promise. We are creatures endowed with the capacity to err, by virtue of which we grow and become ennobled when we acknowledge our mistakes and work at transforming our behavior accordingly.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Saying “I’m sorry” means doing tshuvah—our never-ending work of introspection, repentance and self-betterment. And tshuvah entails humility, the awareness that we’re not always right.
We often miss the mark, or “sin,” when it comes to communication. Inappropriate words get us into trouble—an outsized number of the sins in Yom Kippur’s Al Het prayer involve speech—while words of apology and tshuvah can get us out.
Whether our words are on the mark, however, lies “in the ear of the beholder.” Often we think we send a clear message, yet the other party takes something different from our words, tone or timing. Good tshuvah, and good relationship, insist that we cultivate the humility to see things from the other’s viewpoint.
So what’s the best way to ask forgiveness? Whatever lets the other person hear and respond. It requires sensitivity, a sincere desire and a plan to do better next time. If an apology re-rights the relationship, it has reached its target.
Finally, there’s balance. Good communication focuses on how the other hears, but respects our need to speak as we see fit. Good tshuvah moves toward the other’s position, but without violating our own values. With balance, humility and sensitivity, we may forgive and be forgiven well.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Congregation
Before the High Holy Days, some of us customarily approach acquaintances and say, “If I have done anything to offend you in the past year, I ask your forgiveness.” While this custom is a literal fulfillment of an halachic requirement, it fails to fulfill the halacha’s real intent: to move us to reflect on a year’s interactions and to begin a real process of tshuvah, of turning away from thoughtless, cruel actions toward a better path. The confession to our friend is not the end of this process, but, as Maimonides notes, only the beginning. Furthermore, it places the onus not on us but on others, pressuring them to forgive us even when we have demonstrated no regret for specific wrongdoings.
Better than this formula would be something like: “I know I have wronged you this year in not doing____, and I’m really sorry about that. I will try to do better in the year to come.” This statement properly puts the onus on us, and we should not utter it if we have not resolved to “do better” about the wrongs we have admitted.
“I’m sorry” is a profound admission: it acknowledges our covenant with the acquaintance we have wronged, as well as our covenant with the God who showed us the path on which we need to walk, and how to return toward that path when we turn away.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy
Director, School of Rabbinic Studies at the Hebrew Union College
Jewish Institute of Religion
Los Angeles, CA
I think most people apologize because they feel the need to be at one with other people. Since we are all blessed with a conscience, we have an inner need to atone and to repair relationships that aren’t going well.
I think the best way for us to ask for forgiveness is in person with the one who we have sinned against and to ask for forgiveness for the specific sin that we have committed. We need to ask with great sincerity and honesty and it needs to be accompanied by a change in attitude and behavior. If we merely apologize, it will make ourselves feel good but it doesn’t truly fix the breach in the relationship with the person we have sinned against. And therefore, apologies must always be attached to a change in behavior.
The best way to teach children about forgiveness is through example. Children do pay a lot of attention to their parents’ style of forgiveness and they usually imitate this style. It is important that parents keep this in mind when they are interacting with each other or with their children.
Rabbi Robert B. Slosberg
Congregation Adath Jeshurun
The best way to ask for forgiveness is the hardest way; it is to acknowledge what you have done wrong to yourself, to God and to the person you have wronged, and then ask forgiveness. Maimonides stresses that confession (vidui) is the key to being able to turn away from the evil deed.
Psychologically, the sinner fears that he/she has gone too far and cannot turn back without undermining his/her position and self-respect. Therefore, to name the wrong act and to admit to one’s self and to others what has been done wrong is liberating. This confession enables the person to turn away from the bad behavior and to turn to better living. One who covers up his wrongdoing, (denies it or will not admit it, says Maimonides), will not achieve a full repentance. Maimonides cites the biblical verse “one who covers up sins will not succeed [in overcoming them].”
I would add that wronged persons need the admission and apology in order to regain their own sense of worthiness that so they will not blame themselves for what was done wrong to them. When they are addressed with this admission, they are more likely to forgive and to be restored.
Therefore, Maimonides says that in cases of interpersonal wrongdoing it is a mitzvah to openly state the wrong behavior as part of the apology—not so in sins between a person and God (ritual sins), where the confession should remain between God and the sinner.
Maimonides adds that if the injured party refuses to forgive, the sinner should repeat the apology again and once again. If the other still refuses, then the person who apologized is released from his obligation to make peace with the victim—and the injured party is acting wrongly.
One final note: where the wrong to the other person did actual damage (such as stealing from them), there must be restitution. Without making whole the damage, words are just words and have no efficacy between people; nor can words alone win God’s forgiveness.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg,
President Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation
New York, NY
There is no right or wrong way to ask for forgiveness, as long as the request contains three components: Sincerity, accountability and vulnerability.
In asking forgiveness, you want to make sure you come across as sincere. It is not about the words you say but about the authenticity of the emotions you convey.
Next is accountability: In asking forgiveness, do not fall prey to the natural instinct to put the blame on others; take responsibility for your actions. Ultimately, each of us is empowered to forge our own destiny, and when we wrong somebody we need to assume responsibility and make amends.
In life—in a marriage and indeed in all relationships—you don’t need to be perfect; you need to be accountable. The question is not whether you will make mistakes—an integral part of human life is trial and error—but what you do with your misdoings. Do you run away and hide, or do you confront the situation, ask forgiveness and resolve not to repeat it in the future?
Finally, forgiveness is a vulnerable experience. Often it is awkward and embarrassing, but it is critical to a genuine and meaningful life. If you lack the courage to expose your flaws, you will remain stuck in the quagmire of your narrow ego, enslaved by the superficiality of your false confidence. It is only when you speak your truth, albeit shameful, that you get to enjoy the full majesty of life.
In that sense, asking forgiveness, in earnest and with candor, is one of the great gifts you can give your soul in honor of a new year.