Ashkenazi Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottilieb, 1878
October 2, 2008
From the time Max was a young boy, he knew his Uncle Marshall was very sick. At seven, he understood complex words like hemophilia and blood coagulation and knew from the conversations with his parents that his uncle might not live a long life. As many of us do when we fear the death of a loved one, Max began to distance himself from Marshall in small, often unconscious ways.
Marshall moved from Phoenix to Tucson when Max was 13 and became a regular guest at his family’s Friday night dinners. It was then that Max realized how important he and his parents, brother, and sister were to Marshall, who had no other family and few friends. Marshall often told Max he wanted to see him more to talk, play cards, or just hang out. But being a typical teenager, Max preferred being with friends even though he felt guilty because he knew he should spend time with his uncle.
As Max got older and gained a deeper understanding of the teachings of Judaism, his distance from his uncle bothered him more. A few months before he was leaving for a trip to Alaska, Max learned that Marshall’s condition was terminal and that he might not see him again. Maturity — and his appreciation for Jewish values — guided him to take a step that forever changed both of their lives.
On a warm Shabbat afternoon, Max visited Marshall at the residential care home where he was living. They talked for a while and then Max opened up his heart to him. He told Marshall that he loved him and was sorry for not having been “grown up” enough to understand the importance of being more present for him during his life.
Marshall responded with kind and loving words. “It’s okay, Max. You don’t need to apologize. I always felt that you loved me and was happy for the time we spent together. I really wouldn’t have wanted you to spend more time with me than you honestly wanted to give.”
Since the beginning of time, we have had difficulty accepting responsibility for our wrongdoings. Adam blamed Eve for giving him the apple; Cain disassociated himself from killing Abel when he responded to God’s inquiry with the famous words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is in our nature to run away from our transgressions, either by denying them, blaming others, or justifying our behavior. But Jewish tradition has always recognized that we must acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness if we are to learn and grow from them.
Every year between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jews are called upon to engage in an introspective process known as heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, to assess where we have missed the mark in the past year. We observe the Ten Days of Repentance by becoming conscious of our wrongdoings and asking God for forgiveness. Yet no amount of synagogue attendance or prayers will grant us forgiveness for sins that we have committed against one another. The Talmud teaches: “The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured person has been appeased.” For that, we must go directly to the person we have wronged and ask for forgiveness.
Judaism has created a three-step process for responding to our wrongdoings. The first step is hakarat hahet, recognizing what we have done wrong. Recognition precedes repentance: It is only after we acknowledge that we have treated others unfairly or acted without regard to their feelings that we can take the second step — asking for forgiveness.
But asking for forgiveness from the injured person is not enough. We are also required to try to undo the damage we have done.
The third and final step is to commit to ourselves, as well as to the person we have hurt, that we will not repeat our mistakes in the days ahead.
During the High Holy Days, it may be helpful to ask yourself some questions to help you begin this three-step process:
- Did I have any interactions with friends or family that ended badly? How did I contribute to the problem? Was I unfair in anything I said or did to them?
- Did I speak unkindly about another person? Did I spread a rumor or gossip about another person?
- Was I impatient with my children, parents, or spouse? Did I listen to them when they needed to talk to me or was I too involved in my own concerns to really hear what they had to say?
Admitting to ourselves that we have hurt someone is hard, but having the courage to ask for forgiveness is harder still. When asked if he was scared before he spoke to Marshall, Max said he was. “But I was even more afraid of living with the regret of not having asked for his forgiveness,” he answered with a wisdom well beyond his years.
Because Max did not put off what he knew he had to do, he will never have that regret. His determination to act is an inspiration to all of us who may be hesitant to take the same step in our own lives.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman (amyhirshberglederman.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney who lives in Tucson, Ariz.