521: Welcome to the High Holidays and some spiritual wisdom we all can use

The world’s great religious traditions have survived for thousands of years because they carry timeless wisdom—like the continual need for reconciliation, starting with sincere apologies. This annual lesson couldn’t come at a more timely moment this year. Do we need to list all of the high-profile misbehavior in the headlines this autumn?
    Today’s story by author Judy Gruen is only part of our High Holiday offerings this year.
    Read Stephanie Fenton’s “Spiritual Season” column to learn more about Yom Kippur.
    Or, if you’re just catching up with ReadTheSpirit, you’ll enjoy Lynne Meredith Schreiber’s wonderful spiritual memoir, “An Awakening in Canoes”—in which she travels far from home, yet finds herself traveling inward and homeward as well. It’s a perfect reflection for the High Holidays.
    AND, here is today’s treat for readers of all faiths …

Love Means …
REALLY Having to Say You’re Sorry


If there was an Oscar category for the movie containing the dumbest line, I’d vote for the 1970 hit, “Love Story,” in which actress Ali McGraw immortalized the phrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
    At the time, I thought this sentiment was immensely profound. (In my defense, I was only 10 years old at the time.) Now I know better: Love means always being ready to say you’re sorry. But even the best among us sometimes speak or act before we think, hurt those we love, and fail to live up to our own potential—spiritual, intellectual and emotional. If we can own up to these mistakes, however, we can deepen the relationships most important to us.

Long ago, when one of my sons was 8 years old, he misbehaved badly in class, and the teacher, Mr. Simon, called to tell me. Instead of chastising my son at home, and perhaps grounding him for a few days, I took him to Mr. Simon’s house so he could apologize in person. My son was teary with shame and acutely uncomfortable, but he eventually managed an apology, which Mr. Simon accepted. Making my child face—literally—the wrong he had done was by far the better strategy. He never again misbehaved like that with any other teacher.

Ironically, we often find it easier to apologize to strangers than to those close to us. It’s no big deal to say, “Sorry! Didn’t mean to bang your shopping cart!” It’s much tougher to say to a spouse, parent or child, “I’m sorry I haven’t been listening to your problems lately,” or “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” Doing so forces us to confront our own inadequacies.


Self-improvement is always a good idea, but the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an ideal time. Judaism teaches that during these days, God is more available to us than ever, waiting for us (yes, us!) to come closer to Him. God cannot absolve us for wrongs that we have committed against others, which is why we are supposed to ask forgiveness directly from anyone we may have wronged. But God wants to forgive us for mistakes and transgressions we have committed against Him, against Jewish values, and even against ourselves. Asking for forgiveness and guidance makes us vulnerable, but it also opens the door to a deeper relationship with the transcendent.

On Yom Kippur we seem to apologize all day long, confessing to a whole litany of sins that may strike us as remote and irrelevant. Have we really stolen, acted violently, been immoral? Understanding the Hebrew more accurately helps to make this confessional more meaningful. For example, the word “sin” is a poor translation of the Hebrew words used to designate the various transgressions mentioned in the liturgy. Chet means that we have “missed the mark;” avon means “desire;” and pesha means “rebellion.” I don’t know about you, but too often, I have missed the mark, been rebellious, and indulged my desires.

Similarly, all the transgressions have deeper meanings: “Afflicting others” can mean speaking too harshly, thereby diminishing someone else’s sense of self. “Acting violently” can mean acting in a way where the ends justify the means.
    Finally, we recite the confessional in the plural, because even if we personally never, even once, stole (stealing can refer to money or time, or to misleading others), someone else in the Jewish community probably has, underscoring the concept that Jews do indeed bear responsibility for one another.

Many Jews carve out time for self-reflection during the High Holiday season, take on a new mitzvah, or try to overcome a weakness. It’s best not to be overly ambitious, though. If we have an anger problem, we can start by saying, “I’ll try to lose my temper one less time each day.” Small consistent steps eventually lead to big changes. The acclaimed teacher, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller of Jerusalem, wrote, “As long as we deny where we stand today, we will find that we are still there tomorrow.”

Mature love and mature relationships sometimes require that we say we are sorry. But investing in that personal honesty and integrity is also an investment in deeper, more enriching relationships with family, friends, and with God. Oh yes, you’ll have a more honest relationship with yourself, too.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement. Read more of her work on www.judygruen.com

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