Perhaps you’re familiar with the above sentiment. Out of nowhere you get a call/text/Facebook status update asking for forgiveness for anything your friend/acquaintance/relative might have done to you in the last year. If it was a broad social media post, maybe you 👍and continue scrolling. If it was a text, you reply “All good, Shana Tova.” And if they actually called or greeted you in person, then you’ve awkwardly say, “Of course! And if there’s anything I did please forgive me!” and you continue on with your superficial relationship.
In case you hadn’t picked up on my sarcasm, clearly I’m a little annoyed by this custom. Why?
Teshuvah before Yom Kippur is really important. In fact we’re in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (the 10 Days of Teshuvah), special days between (and including) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that have a unique energy for receiving atonement for your sins. Though you can do teshuvah anytime, according to the Rambam, “during the ten days… [words of teshuvah] are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately.” (Hilchos Teshuvah Chapter 2:6)
However, teshuvah in the formula I’ve mentioned before only works for sins between a person and God. If you’ve done anything to anyone else, you first have to apologize to them and then do teshuvah to God. Now, you may view some of your friendships, relatives, acquaintances, or coworkers as relationships that just aren’t close enough to necessitate an apology. Or it’d be weird. Or they don’t deserve it. Or you just don’t care. But just know, “a transgression against one’s fellow man is also a sin against God.” (Notes on Hilchos Teshuvah Chapter 2:9) So given that, why do I have such a problem with the text/email, above?
Repairing the Rift
To answer that we have to look at what teshuvah is all about.
Often mistranslated as repentance, teshuvah literally means “return.” Judaism believes human beings are inherently good as we testify to that idea every morning in the prayer Elohai Neshamah. “My God the soul You placed within me is pure.” The sins we do don’t so much “make us bad” but instead function to create a barrier to our relationship with God. Doing teshuvah results in bringing us back to that close relationship with Him.
Though for some, this divide between you and God may feel only theoretical, but when it comes to our relationships, the divide is tangible. There are a plethora of reasons why relationships grow distant. A situation in life may change, you may lose interests in your common hobbies, work or family life may take up too much of your time. But unfortunately a big reason is because one person has offended the other, and neither party knows how to resolve that difference in a healthy way.
So… What Should I Do?
Even though the example of “doing teshuvah” at the top is making an effort, it’s the least amount of effort possible. It might get you some forgiveness, but if you’ve actually done something significant to the other person, the lack of calling attention to it might make matters worse. So here are some steps to help make an authentic and meaningful apology before the window of easy teshuvah closes.
Action 1. Reflect.
Simply thinking about your relationship, surely you can find something you did wrong. Big things, small things. Rambam says that a person who frequently commits the following will not “receive a portion in the world to come” (ibid Chapter 3:14).
• One who invents a disparaging nickname for another person
• One who calls another person by a disparaging nickname
• One who embarrasses another person in public
• One who takes pride in another person’s shame
I’m sure your friend loves being called “Tiny.” But if deep down they kinda resent it, you’re screwed. Reflecting on your relationship does more than just find the mistakes you made, it helps you remember the good times and appreciate that relationship more. When was the last time you went through the pictures on your phone and remembered that concert your friend invited you to.
If you do find something, “Oh no, I never repaid them for that Uber ride.” Or, “Maybe I shouldn’t have shared on Instagram that they were leaving their job in a couple weeks.” You may think it is awkward to bring it up again, but taking the time to reflect on the relationship shows that your connection means something. The effort in and of itself may deepen the friendship.
If you find a person who you really don’t want to go to… well… that might be an indication there’s something there you did that maybe you don’t want to think about. “Na they probably aren’t mad about X.” But deep down you know they’re pissed and you just don’t want to face them. Definitely spend some time thinking about this case.
Action 2. Apologize again.
Okay, so months ago you embarrassed the person not realizing they didn’t want you to tell everyone they were going on a diet. Whoops. But you instantly realized your mistake and apologized on the spot. One of three things happened. 1) They accepted your apology. Then quickly insisted you change the subject. 2) They didn’t really accept your apology, but just insisted you move on. 3) They definitely didn’t accept your apology, but you decided to move on.
All three of those are an indication you should revisit the apology. For the first scenario, yes they technically forgave you, but c’mon they didn’t really. Due to social awkwardness or their embarrassment they didn’t want to fixate on it any further. And as Pirkei Avos 4:23 states, “Don’t try to appease your friend at the time of their anger.” Clearly, your apology didn’t really fix anything. But now that some time has passed, it is probably a good idea to actually seek their forgiveness. For the second scenario, it’s pretty much the same thing, but you shouldn’t have any illusions that you’ve not received forgiveness. Ask again.
For the third case where the individual didn’t accept your apology at all, you are required to go back and ask again. If they still are mad, Rambam says you should go back with three friends (people they like, not people you like) so the apology is public. If after three apologies, you’re in the clear. At that point they are transgressing by not forgiving you. Unless it’s your Rabbi. Then you have to go back time and time again until they forgive you.
Action 3. The better template text message.
Let’s say you do go through the process thinking about your relationship with your sister, your father, or your friend. Everything seems good. Okay fine. Then go back to that example I listed at the top. “If I did anything in the last year to offend you…” But don’t say you’re sorry. Instead finish that sentence… “please tell me what I did. It’s the only way I will grow myself and better understand you.”
By using this format, you’ve opened the door for them to be authentic and to actually create that change. It also shows you care and want to make sure your relationship is solid. Maybe you’ve got nothing to worry about. But maybe you find out you did something you had no idea was a problem.
What Shouldn’t I Do?
As promising as these steps are, there are certainly some pitfalls to be aware of.
Non-action 1. I’m sorry but…
Okay you know you messed up and you’re sorry. But come on, your mom really was being overly critical. Stop! Nope. Dial it back. The apology is on you. Don’t qualify, don’t explain, don’t warn the other person that what they did caused you to do what you did. That’s not an apology. This process isn’t about fixing them, it’s about fixing you.
Non-action 2. Maybe don’t apologize.
There actually are some cases where you shouldn’t apologize. One is lashon hara. If you went ahead and bad mouthed your friend to someone else and they don’t know about it, don’t tell them what you did. It may make things much much much much worse. Also if what you did was so painful or embarrassing it actually may be better not to bring it up. This is a difficult one to determine, so definitely consult your local Orthodox Rabbi.
Apologies Can Bring You Closer
Teshuvah is about reflecting on your life, contemplating the traps you’re all-too-frequently falling into, then deciding to make a change. To do it to God is hard enough, but we know He is going to forgive us. So there’s no risk of awkwardness, backlash, or exposure. That’s hardly true for other people.
But when you go through the process of teshuvah properly, you not only learn about yourself, you learn about the other person. Why do you keep doing the thing that upsets them? Do you really care about their feelings? Are you still mad about something you didn’t even realize and that’s coming out in ways you haven’t dealt with? It’s when you put that effort into the relationship, you become closer than if you had never upset them at all because you have a deeper understanding of all parties involved.
That’s how a transgression can become a merit. And when you understand that everything comes from God, by fixing your personal relationships, you become closer to Him too. So maybe take an extra moment to reflect on your casual or atrophying relationships. Or even your close ones. It might just be the way to break out of this social-media centric but ironically isolating world.