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The Apology that Never Comes

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

A story is told of two rabbis—one is named Reish Lakish, and the other Yochanan. The two men were study partners and brothers.

The two rabbis studied together each and every day in the Beit Midrash for many years, until one day they found themselves in a dispute. The fight intensified, taking on more emotional energy and becoming about more than just the topic at hand. It was the sort of fight where you might expect one to say, “Wait… What are we fighting about?” At which point they would put down their differences and make up. But that did not happen here. As the two fought more, the brothers got personal, insulting one another. This fight killed their relationship. The breaking point was when Yochanan told Reish Lakish that he, well, just was not very intelligent.

The two never spoke to one another again. Neither would humble himself to repair the breach. Reish Lakish became sick over the whole situation, and his wife came to Yochanan, begging him to apologize, belieiving that those three words, “I am sorry,” were the pill her husband needed for health. Yochanan pushed her away, refused to apologize, and added insult to injury, noting that maybe her children deserved to lose their father.

Reish Lakish died of a broken heart.

When Yochanan learned that his brother died, he became unconsolable, going mad, walking the streets at night calling out for Reish Lakish. Shortly thereafter, Yochanan also became sick with heartache, of which he died, too.

Reish Lakish’s wife sought an apology on her husband’s behalf, but Yochanan—for whatever reason—was unable to give it. Yochanan was unrepentant during his brother’s lifetime. Only after Reish Lakish’s death, was Yochanan repentant. It was only then that Yochanan felt the suffering he put his brother through.

This story is an object lesson in repentance: Yochanan’s sense of remorse came too late. And Reish Lakish was also stuck. He was caught in the world of hurt that his brother caused. Both were unable to find healing, move forward, and write new chapters in their lives. What would have happened if Yochanan had humbled himself before his brother and his best friend? What would have happened to their lives and to their family? What would have happened if Reish Lakish were to have sought other sources for healing? Not forgive and forget or simply let it go, but to go through a process in which he allowed himself release of the suffering caused by others?

This story presents two abiding questions, significant tonight as the Gates of Repentance open for each of us: Why do some never seek forgiveness? And, how do we forgive the unrepentant?

At this time of year, on Yom Kippur, we talk a lot about forgiveness. We say the same thing over and over. I find the repetition meaningful. S’lach lanu, excuse us; m’chal lanu, pardon us; kah-per lanu, forgive us.

Yet, not all transgressions or transgressors are created equally. Some situations are more complicated. Our relationships to the wrongs that we suffered and to the wrongs we committed vary depending on their nature. Our tradition teaches that today is penance for the wrongs we committed against God. For transgressions against one another, we are required to present ourselves before those we have wronged, and to seek forgiveness.(fn)

Why do some never seek forgiveness? And, if that person never says “I am sorry,” how do we—can we—forgive the unrepentant?

This is, for me, a personal question.

About a year ago, my grandmother died. Truth be told, she was never much of grandmother. We saw one another about once a year during my childhood, and I stoped speaking to her shortly after I had become bar mitzvah. As I came of age, I witnessed her say hurtful things to people I love. She was a difficult person, who I would describe in Hebrew as lo b’shleimut. She was far from whole.

Suffice it to say, learning of my grandmother’s death brought up a key emotional and spiritual question: As a young adult, I grieved a grandmother who never was, having not talked with her for two decades, I did not know if she was still alive. And still, I did not seek her out, I never opened the gates for her. And now, that I do know of her passing, those gates have close. Should—how can I—forgive?

In my own version of the story, I am like Reish Lakish. I never asked my grandmother to apologize to me or to anyone else. But I also know that were I to have tried, I do not think that she would have been able to both hear me and feel the need to apologize.

And that’s because there are two types of people who hold back on apologies: Some know they have hurt others and for whatever reason turn a blind eye. And then there are others who are not aware of the hurt. I think my grandmother was the later, that she did not understand the effects her behavior had on others.

In regard to the former, those who knowingly hurt others, and who remain unrepentant, our Jewish legal system offers insight. Different crimes in Judaism were punished in different ways. There are some transgressions against the community and against others that warranted what is called nidui, temporary banishment from the community, or cherem, permanent excommunication. The crimes that warranted such punishments were mostly reserved for influential men in the community, rabbis, magistrates, and other leaders, for crimes that were sexual in nature.

Nidui was declared for a set period of time. It was temporary. The assailant would be sentenced and exiled. Maimonides, in his legal code, teaches that during a period of nidui if the man came back truly repentant within the first thirty days of his banishment, his sentence would be lifted, allowing his re-entry into society. If those thirty days passed, and he remained unrepentant, the court extended his exile another thirty days. After two months, if he still had not sought forgiveness, the court placed him in cherem. They excommunicated him.

The responsibility rests on the person who committed the crime. Knowing that one has wronged another or wronged the community, he is responsible to seek pardon. While written in legal terms, with physical banishment in mind, the metaphor is apt. “The mere passage of time makes us all exiles,” writes Joyce Carol Oates, especially when the relationship continues only through memory. The longer one goes without repentance, the more and more we find ourselves in an exile of our own making. The more distant we become. That is what happened to Yochanan. That is what happened to my grandmother. To not seek forgiveness cuts us off from others, practically, emotionally, spiritually.

But, if we are to learn anything from being Jews, it is that we are not destined to remain in exile. We know that redemption and repair are possible. Seeking forgiveness is a path forward when wondering if we can forgive those who never say they are sorry.

Writer and activist Eve Ensler offers a powerful perspective in her latest book called The Apology. Ensler’s father physically, sexually, and emotionally assaulted her from the time she was a young child until she left her parents’ home, and really throughout her life, since she continued to carry the trauma with her. Her father died a while ago, and she has continued to wait for an apology that would never come—could never come. Could she forgive this unrepentant man?

Now in her 60’s, Ensler gave herself a path toward healing. She imagined her father’s voice, and she wrote the apology he never gave, answering an essential question she had asked for decades: How do we offer a doorway rather than a locked cell? How do we move from humiliation to revelation? How do we move from being exiled by our trauma to knowing we have been graced with personal redemption?

Ensler’s father, as she imagines him in this book, is caught in a sort of limbo. His soul unable to move forward until this process is complete. He could never humble himself during his lifetime, so she enabled him to do so in death, through her mind and heart. Over 112 difficult pages, her father’s voice describes what he did to her in detail, offers an accounting of his sins, takes ownership of his perpetual assault, his attitude, and the impact that he had on her. The book concludes with these sentences:

“I am sorry. I am sorry. Let me sit here at the final hour. Let me get it right this time. Let me be staggered by your tenderness. Let me risk fragility. Let me be rendered vulnerable. Let me be lost. Let me still. Let me not occupy or oppress. Let me not conquer or destroy. Let me bath in the rapture. Let me be the father. Let me be the father who mirrors your kindheartedness back to you. Let me lay no claims. Let me bear witness and not invade.”

Ensler defines an apology as “a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.”

And when she gives herself permission to offer her father’s apology, she too finds release. The last four words of the book are “Old man, be gone.”

To say I am sorry, one must humble himself before another, surrender himself to hurtful and painful things he has done, connecting intimately with the victim. An apology then is profoundly empathic, because it means we feel the pain we inflicted on someone else.

We know there are those who remain unrepentant. For the last two years we’ve been hearing their names in the news; men like Weinstein and Epstein. As we read about the absolutely horrible things these men did, we would do well to slow ourselves from making it all about them. I want to name them, but not focus on them. It is easy to fall down a rabbit hole, trying to puzzle out how these men did what they did for so long, but then by focusing on that, we’re not confronting our own demons. To see these men—along with others—meet justice, or not, validates the trauma many have personally suffered. We know the soul of the stranger, because we too were strangers. Yet I would caution us to not mask over the work we ourselves need to be doing with our relationships because we’re too focused on the headlines.

Some of us count ourselves among survivors and victims. Some may also be individuals who have acted regrettably, who have done regrettable things. And Yom Kippur is here for each of us as a gateway back from exile toward repair. As brothers and sisters, children and parents, lovers and spouses, employees and employers, and neighbors, we have wronged one another. And we have been wronged.

Why do some never seek forgiveness? Perhaps they are waiting—right or wrong—for us to open the gate, allowing them to come in from their exile. And, if that person never says “I am sorry,” Can we still forgive them?

Whether the person is aware of the hurt or not, our tradition calls us to open the gates of repentance for them, but we are not obligated to make them apologize. As those who were aggrieved by others, I would ask: Does the other person know of their transgression? We owe it to them the chance to apologize. Otherwise, we are being like Reish Lakish and Yochanan. And I would ask you, are you benefiting from holding onto that grief? Can you find redemption for yourself if you were to stop grasping to it, moving forward toward a more whole, authentic self?

Let’s play the scenario out: Let’s say we open the door for the person who has wronged us, and he or she remains unrepentant, what work do we then need to do to find resolution and restitution for ourselves?

The answer rests in the power of today: Yom Kippur is a reminder that we still have time.

Right now, this new year lies before you. And we have time. For the last several years, Hevreh has advertised the High Holy Days with a banner on the Fairgrounds Fence over by Big Y. Each year we debate what we should put on the banner. I’ve jokingly said it should read, “Repent Now. Judgement Day is coming.” That may not be so far off. We do not have to be locked in prisons of our own making like Yochanan, my grandmother, or Eve Ensler’s father. The gates have not closed. From the mundane to the most traumatic, today the gates are open to us to make things right, or at least try, to enact that surrender and embrace a humility that can heal.

Within each of us there lay a spiritual and emotional fortitude. I would not say that if I had not seen it bear out in many of us here. We can offer release to those who wronged us, regardless of the perpetrator’s disposition. We each can say like Ensler did, “Old man, be gone.” Our lives are not defined by the wrongs we have suffered, but to craft a life of worth despite them.

Over the next day we engage in intense self-reflection and prayer. Tomorrow evening, the gates will close on our Day of Repentance, and we will go back to our regular lives. I enjoin each of us to use today to set things right, to repair our broken relationships. And if repair is not possible, choosing not to forgive and forget, but to move forward toward a deeper sense of wholeness and peace.

May we seek release, and release others from the exile brought on by sin, which hold us back from being our best, whole, sacred selves. Albert Camus once commented, “In the depth of winter, I found that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

G’mar Chatimah Tova. May we each be sealed in the Book of Life, Blessing, and Peace.

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