This is the seventh in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
I didn’t know about the custom of asking mechila — for forgiveness — when I was growing up. When I eventually learned about it, early in my career writing about religion, I thought it was a great concept. The message, after all, is a powerful one: We are responsible for rectifying the wrongs we have done, intentionally or not, that in any way hurt the people in our lives. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could see the value of asking for forgiveness. That is, until I started approaching people.
When I first began asking people for forgiveness, my request was usually met with graciousness and sometimes even thoughtful engagement, but one of the first people I approached was my boss at the time. Sincerely, perhaps naively, I asked if he would forgive me if I had done anything to hurt or offend him. His response was to laugh in my face.
Being neurotic, I of course thought it was because there was something wrong with my request. Years later, when I asked him about it, he said he laughed because he just didn’t know what to say. That was a relief; it was his limitation, not mine.
In the years since, I have refined my approach, and now limit it to the people with whom I am closest: family and dear friends.
Paired with 10 days of reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asking mechila sharpens my focus and my intention. It gives me an opportunity to think about the many things I’ve done wrong in the past year, and the chance to open up a conversation with the people I love about the slights and hurts I’ve caused them. It creates the opportunity to step back and evaluate how things are in each relationship, consider how I want them to improve and what I can do to create that change.
It’s like a chance for relationship re-set.
It’s also good modeling for my kids. Deborah Kolben writes that girls are acculturated to be more accommodating and apologetic than boys. She says that “as much as I want my daughter to know when it’s time to say ‘I’m sorry’ — I want equally for her to know when she doesn’t need to apologize and when it’s time for somebody to apologize to her.”
I see that girls default to apologizing far too often — it seems to start in the middle school years — and I work with my own daughters and other young women to help them understand that it is neither necessary nor healthy.
Accepting responsibility for wrongdoing should not be a gendered issue. But I have heard more than once from women a generation older than me that “men are different than women” — that I should not expect the same kind of self-awareness from men that I do from women. I heard from a Satmar woman, recently, that a man arrested for sexually abusing a teenage girl isn’t to blame “because she was troubled.” This acquaintance said that the girl may have tantalized him and that “boys will be boys.” This is a woman — perhaps living in a culture that teaches it — who has internalized to a dangerous degree the idea that women are somehow responsible for everyone’s failings.
Is being emotionally inept the reason that my boss laughed in my face? Definitely. Was it because he was a man? Perhaps, though I can think of a different boss, a woman, who could easily have done the same.
But the central message of asking for mechila is not about culture or different expectations of men and women. The days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time for a different kind of growth: to learn and, as parents, to teach that it is not either/or, that just because someone has hurt you doesn’t mean that you are free from taking responsibility for your own actions.
Mechila is about our potential as individuals — and our potential for being thoughtless and hurtful. Lord knows that people in each of our lives will continue to disappoint and hurt us. It is a lot easier to think about their failings than our own. This tradition is about our potential to grow, and to repair ourselves and our relationships. That supersedes gender.
By the time Yom Kippur arrives I will have sat, privately, with each of my children. I will name and apologize for the things I can recall that I have said or done that have hurt them. I will ask how I can do better and what they need of me in the coming year. And I will ask that they forgive me.
I’m not doing it because I’m female, and so it should not be expected of me more than it is expected of my husband or any of my children. I have done it because it is the right thing to do. Because I feel blessed to have this be part of the Jewish tradition. Because I want my children to appreciate its value. And because I do want them to forgive me, to start our new year in a positive way, with no resentment, no matter how small, interfering with our closeness.
It’s the least I can do. As their mother and as a Jew.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Mechila Not Just For Women