How To Apologize Like You Mean It

forgiveEvery year, the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur comes around and gives us the opportunity to apologize to people we have harmed. For those of us who observe Yom Kippur, it forces us to think deeply about the ups and downs of interpersonal repair. For those of us who don’t celebrate Yom Kippur, it can be like being in Las Vegas during a NASCAR championship: you can enjoy the experience vicariously. Just swap out hordes of NASCAR fans and exhaust fumes for ornery, hypoglycemic Jews.

Teshuva is the main thing we Yom Kippur enthusiasts do on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Teshuva is usually translated as “repentance,”(though yuck – hate that word). And every year, I hear someone quote the medieval Spanish Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s formula for “doing teshuva.”

Step 1: Admit how you effed up. (Mishneh Torah 1:1).

Step 2: Show that you’re sorry, and take whatever actions you need to make sure you don’t eff up again. (Mishneh Torah 2:2) and fix whatever damage you’ve caused (Mishneh Torah 2:9).

Step 3: Don’t eff up again if you’re ever in the same position in the future. (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

On the one hand, this is great stuff. I wish people did this more often. I should do this more often.

On the other hand, the simplicity of these steps reminds me a bit of “Dick in a Box.” Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and “That’s the way you doooo it.”

dickboxThe Dick-in-a-Box Sorry System is great for situations where the “wrong” is totally clear: for any version of stepping on someone’s foot.

“One. I’m sorry I stepped on your foot. Two. I will keep an eye out for your feet. Three. Here’s a new pair of shoes. Teshuva! That’s the way you doooo it.”

And being married, I see that daily “teshuva” is an integral part of sharing a home and a life with someone. Through teshuva, I have learned to close the cabinet doors, to clean the cat’s litter box without being asked to, and to communicate when I will be home later than I’d expected.

And if we’re lucky, that type of apologizing is good for, say, 95% of the conflicts that arise in a given year, whether at home or at work or with friends. But for that other 5%, Yom Kippur forces us to confront the fact that any real conflict – certainly one which has lingered in our minds for months – is likely to be the result of a messed up relationship system. And when the relationship is effed up, “apologizing for harm” and “promising not to do it again” strikes me as a serious oversimplification. And any approach to a complex problem with an over-simplified solution will be disappointing. Sometimes dangerous.

An example: someone has mistreated you regularly. Then they come to you and ask for forgiveness for “any time they might have harmed you.” Their Dick-in-a-Box apology doesn’t allow for you to express the fact that the relationship is unbalanced and toxic. It puts you in a situation of disempowerment, like those awkward scenes in rom-coms where the evil Alpha Male, astride a white horse, “asks” the female lead to marry him while the whole kingdom (and his armed guards) watch; she has no real agency. And Yom Kippur lurking around the corner adds that whole “kingdom watching” element. It’s not fair.

Forgiveness is not a right. And an apology is not sufficient.

The flip side, though, is also true: when apologizing to someone, never simply apologize for “anything you might have done” (gah!) and don’t just name the thing (“I’m sorry for stepping on your shoes”).

Rather: and here’s the toughest thing of all. If you want to apologize, approach someone with the desire to make things better, and ask if they’d like to speak first. Don’t see it as an opportunity to harvest an apology–see it as the chance to learn something.

We don’t live in a world of sin and repentance; rather, we live in a world of complex, competing needs with many, many unfortunate consequences as we try to meet our needs. For those of us who are celebrating Yom Kippur tomorrow night, and for those of us who are not, may we choose our approach to apologies not with a goal in mind, but with the desire to understand. With the willingness to be told the Truth.

And that’s the way you dooooo it.


14 DAYS OF REFLECTION: EPISODE 12 – Context, Context, Context

Why I haven't posted in a month had something to do with my cultural context.

Why I haven’t posted in a month had something to do with my cultural context.

Q: Why have I not written anything for the last month?

A: Long answer. It begins with G.I. Joe.

When I was 14, I rounded up all my action figures, put them into shoe boxes, and hung posters: Lamborghinis, girls in bikinis, and a couple of rock bands.

I know. Super original.

If you had told me, six months earlier, that my beloved G.I. Joe space station would soon be as irrelevant to my life as a Fisher Price barnyard, I’d have said, in the parlance of the day, “bite me.”

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. One spring day, with very little fanfare, I hid the space station, the stealth fighter, and even the awesome Terrordrome under the bed, in the back of the closet, and behind the extra sofa in the attic. (Where they are to this very day).

In my life, I have gone through many phases and fads. I have been, at various times, obsessed with (in no particular order): electric guitar, capoeira, the Best American Short-Fiction series, Indian New-Age kitsch, salsa dance, Chinese tea, Bioshock, Dungeons and Dragons, vintage tube-amp stereo systems, and comic books. With each of these, I threw myself in, feeling a burning passion to understand, learn, do, master. Then, at some point, it no longer seemed relevant, and I put it away.


A prime sample of Jerusalem’s Fashion Glitteratti.

This summer, I spent three weeks in Jerusalem. Say what you like about the magic and the power and the history of the city, it’s one of the least stylish places imaginable. An image search for “Srugim” (an Israeli TV show, similar to “Friends,” but depicting life in the hub of  Jerusalem’s religious-singles’ scene) can confirm that everyone looks sort of shlumpy.

I’d packed my suitcase with some red, summer chinos, a couple of skinny bow-ties, a light-weight blazer, some Fred Perry polo shirts — all the stuff I wear when I want to look dapper on vacation. But most of it sat, unworn, in my suitcase. Instead, I wore the same three T-shirts, over and over, washing them in my hotel sink. On Shabbat, I wore a white dress shirt.

In the span of three days, I’d lost interest in anything having to do with clothes. And as someone who has been passionate about style for years, I have to admit – I was a little concerned. Would I return home in droopy khakis and billowy, white dress shirts? Would go the way of the G.I. Joe Mobile Command Center?

My main source of inspiration.

My main source of inspiration.

As it turns out, once home, many things returned to normal. I was reunited with my main source of inspiration, and I dove headfirst into a pile of cardigan sweaters, gleeful both for the variety and also for the Bay Area weather, permitting my stylish layering.

Some might credit my fashion-fluctuation with Jerusalem’s inherent spirituality obliterating my interest in all things vain.

I, however, believe it’s about context.

There is nothing very funny about a pirate, per se. But a pirate on an escalator? The misalignment in context makes for a comic spectacle.

Likewise, amidst swimming-suited beachgoers… look at that man in a tuxedo! Awkward and absurd! Let’s go shove him into a sand castle! 


A seersucker suit belongs in Jerusalem like a pirate belongs on an escalator.

Style is about dressing for the place and the time. In summer, bright colors. Linen. Stylistic nods to Nantucket, Hawaii, Cuba, Southern California, the Mediterranean. In Winter, wool and tweed, sweaters, muted tones, and stylistic nods to the Ivy-League campus, to ski slopes, to the Holidays.

In winter, I lose interest in my summer outfits, and in summer, I lose interest in my winter gear. And in Jerusalem, I focused on other things: teaching. Food. My memories. And my outfits fit that context. Everything was easy to wear, easy to wash, and easy to shove into a suitcase.

Preparing for to shop in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Meah Sha'arim. Wearing ritual fringes for Kosher-Steez credit.

Preparing to shop in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Meah Sha’arim. Wearing ritual fringes for Kosher-Steez credit.

On the other hand, not ironically, cloth and clothes did play a major role for me in Jerusalem.

Future posts will explore how (and why) I spent an impressive amount of time tracking down a wool prayer shawl (tallis) and a white, linen robe (kittel) with a fervor I normally reserve for a Black Fleece suit. I agonized over white kind of white Kippah to purchase for a very significant event next summer. I even wore fringes to blend into the cultural milieux of an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. In other words, I didn’t lose interest in style. But style manifested in other ways.

It was, and is, an expression of who and where I am. The constant is that style is about the Self in context.

Even if that Self moves forward from time to time.