For Jews, Holiday Season Offers Chance To Set Aside Pride

Apologizing and Repentance Are Important for Nations, Too

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 08, 2011, issue of September 16, 2011.
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Well, here we are in the month of Elul, approaching the sacred Jewish season of repentance and forgiveness. This is the month set aside in tradition for practicing our shofar blowing and apologizing to our neighbors. So what’s the big message out of the Jewish state? “No apologies, no way.” And a happy new year to you, too.

Normally, we think of an apology as a useful gesture, a nicety that helps to smooth a few ruffled feathers. I hurt your feelings, I think you should get over it, but your foolish pride won’t let you. What will it cost me to make the first move? Just a bit of pride. So I shrug, grin sheepishly and say the words, and we hug. Crisis averted.

The Israeli-Turkish smack-down over last year’s flotilla deaths is a squabble of a very different magnitude, but it comes down to the same thing: pride. Turkey says its national honor requires an Israeli apology for the deaths of Turkish citizens; Israel says its national honor forbids apologizing for an act of legitimate self-defense. They’re a pair of old friends, stuck in a downward slide toward enmity because neither one will blink.

The difference between them is that Israel has much more to lose: its most important regional ally, its third largest trading partner and its vital bridge to the Muslim world. Risking all that for the sake of honor seems unforgivably short-sighted.

On the other hand, that sort of misses the point of the season, doesn’t it? I just got through arguing that the crisis boils down to a deficit of repentance and forgiveness, because Israel won’t repent and Turkey won’t forgive. How can I then proceed to call either side’s actions unforgivable? The answer is, I can’t.

This puts me in an awkward spot. The two erstwhile allies are playing a high-stakes game of chicken and putting the stability of the Middle East and the lives of Israelis at risk. The rest of us are entitled — or obliged — to assess the situation and assign responsibility. The world has gotten too small for conflicts to be kept private. And yet, the way to forgiveness must not be closed off. It’s the only way that conflicts are resolved.

This High Holy Day season is a good time to step back and sort out the complications of conflict and resolution. After all, that’s what the New Year and Day of Atonement are really about. This is the time of year when we close out our emotional accounts, both payable and receivable, so that we can enter the new year with a clean slate. That means clearing up our lingering grudges. We’re supposed to seek peace with those we’ve wronged by apologizing. No less important, we’re required to make peace with those who’ve wronged us by forgiving them.

It sounds straightforward, but it’s not. The truth is that the wrongs we do to others are usually things we believed were right at the time. More often than not, we still feel that way. The natural instinct is to offer a half-apology: “I’m sorry if I made you feel bad.” Of course, this is another way of saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but if you got your nose out of joint, you have my sympathy.” It’s a phony apology, and any forgiveness it elicits will be just as phony. A real apology is a genuine expression of regret: I understand what I put you through. I wish I had found another way. That’s a lot more difficult.

Forgiving is even more complicated. As easy as it is for me to point out the good intentions that lay behind my own misdeeds, it’s hard to get past the feeling that those who harmed me did so on purpose. We celebrate forgiveness as an ideal, but usually it’s little more than a willingness to swallow our feelings and move on. Real forgiveness is more like a decision to dismiss the charges. It’s a process of seeing the deed through eyes of the doer and understanding what led up to it. It’s a bit unnatural, and yet it’s a basic building block of peace.

That’s where Yom Kippur comes in. The holiday is a guided exercise that trains us to master the contradictions of regret. We come together to confess our misdeeds, both individual and collective. We speak them aloud, surrounded by a community of witnesses. We repeat the same confession again and again as the day goes on and hunger wears down our resistance. We ask forgiveness for the intentional wrongs and the accidental ones, for those we knew about and those we didn’t. Then we take God’s part and grant forgiveness to the sinners among us. We acknowledge that “all the nation is in error,” that we are all blind, collectively and individually, and that all we can do is do our best. Sometimes, as Murray Burns said in “A Thousand Clowns,” a good apology is the most you can expect.

Unfortunately, the system seems to have broken down lately. We go through the motions of apologizing and forgiving, but the acts have lost their meaning. Not only have we lost the skills of repentance — we’ve somehow come to see them as bad things. Humility and mutual understanding are tantamount to treason. Honor and pride are everything. Seeing the world and ourselves through the eyes of another has gone the way of the Charleston and the New York City subway token.

The Israeli government’s response to the flotilla incident is the obvious example, but it’s dangerous to stop the list there. Listen to the way peaceniks talk about settlers, or conservatives talk about President Obama, or liberals talk about pro-lifers. There is more that unites us than we realize. Like mutual loathing. It’s time to take back Yom Kippur.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com.


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