Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sorry (But Not Really)

Jennifer Gubitz
Brooklyn Jews | 5772 | Kol Nidre

“Apologize to your little sister,”
she yelled to the back seat of our 1992 Chrysler mini-van
with wooden, yes, wooden siding.
“Right now,” she commanded.
A huff ensued, then a grumble, but finally
It seemed my 13-year-old brother*
had succumbed
to the greatest prosecutor of them all – our mom.
But then with a ridiculing, retainer ensnared grin,
In a voice so quiet she would never hear,
A cantankerous qualifying statement:
“but not really.”

It was a superfluous statement to begin with.
The first time I put
the orange Tupperware bowl to my mouth
To consume the final remnants
of milk and cheerios…
He stealthily walked over to me,
and deftly smashed the bowl into my face –
Milk and cereal dripped from my hair and clothes.
In but a few minutes, I had changed clothes
and returned to the breakfast table
to attempt eating once more.
And again, when I reached the last bits of my cereal bowl,
I raised it to my face –
Yes, we had questionable table manners -
And you can imagine what happened next.
This second attack
on my cereal bowl and mop of long curly hair–
was enough to nullify any future apology.
We all knew – my mom, my brother, me –
that he was not really sorry to begin with.
And yet, she demanded from him an apology
That could only transpire through falsehood.

His qualifying
(But not really)
was actually the most honest,
albeit snide, statement to follow up
that apology he never truly meant.

It’s amazing, tragic even,
just how hollow language can become.
We know the world
of disingenuous, empty, apologies all too well.
Victim and guilty of it ourselves, I’d guess.
“I am so sorry that you heard me say it that way”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way”
which are really to say:
didn’t mean for it to come out that way”
“I’m not actually sorry for what I did”
or even a judgment:
“Wow, you’re really sensitive.”
But neither, it seems, a sufficient apology.
And of course:
“Sorry I’m late…”
“Sorry I didn’t call you earlier…”
In the hustle of the morning commute –
“I’m sorry (but not really.)
After all you were in my way
when I was trying to
catch the D across the platform.”
And then again a judgment –
“Who wears open toed heels in November anyways?”
And, the worst of them, I think:
An email apology
which seems to really say
“I’m not apologetic enough
to say this to you in person.”
So many types of apologies
cloaked with qualifying statements
That ultimately negate sincerity.

We are socialized from early on,
well before we can really identify
A sense of feeling apologetic or remorseful.
The lines are fed to us –
Apologize to Arielle; Say your sorry to Sammy!
The toddler expresses, then,
In a voice so sweet
that alone it cancels out the crime,
“I sorry,”
“Accident Mommy,”
“No bite daddy.”
This is not to say toddlers are insincere so much as they
Learn to mimic what we teach them to say
As we prompt them to apologize and seek forgiveness.

And today, on our holiest day of the year,
A day prescribed to us centuries ago,
Out of the thoughtfulness of rabbinic
Forefathers and, its nice to think, foremothers…
On this day that prompts us
to apologize and seek forgiveness,
The question exists:
Are we really any different than a toddler?
Yes, we are more emotionally,
more spiritually mature -
But are we really any more penitent, apologetic, and sincere?
We were given a manual.
Someone told us what to say.

Our manual, our liturgy, which we will read shortly, guides us:

(sung/tapping chest)
Ashamnu, Bagadnu…
We have been guilty,
we have betrayed,
we have stolen,
we have spoken falsely…

He’evinu, v’hirshanu…
We have acted perversely
and we have done wrong;
We have acted presumptuously
We have done violence…
We have counseled evil

When I really stop to look
through the litany that is our Vidui confessional,
I take pause.
Yes this past year, I have felt guilty and betrayed
And have been guilty of betrayal.
Stealing, however, another’s property? No;
another’s happiness or spotlight– possibly.
Gossip– unfortunately, yes.
Guilty of that.

But counseled evil? No – not guilty.
Presumptiousness? Probably.
Violence? No.

And yet – every year, whether or not I am guilty,
I confess to these misdeeds.
In unison, we all confess to these transgressions.
We pound our chests –
Ashamnu- we are guilty…
Bagadnu – we have betrayed…

A real dissonance reverberates in our confession.
Though beautiful that liturgy
connects us to the past,
If we are merely reading words on a page,
As we’ve been taught to do -
but in them cannot find meaning,
or relevance,
or truth
if in them we cannot find ourselves
and the words we speak feel hollow,
what does it matter
if we declare our penance aloud?
Or what does it matter if we do not declare our guilt at all?
Is it better to falsely admit to falsehood or simply remain silent?

While on Yom Kippur,
false admission may gain us admittance
into the presence of the true judge,
the Holy One Above –
In our criminal justice system,
fabricated confessions
Whether by coercion or personal choice,
can send one into the presence of a judge,
and ultimately to jail.

Practical, liturgical, judicial, theological discord abounds.

True story.
Eddie Lowery served ten years
for a crime to which he confessed,
but did not commit.
A September 2010
New York Times article
tells Lowery’s story –
as one of at least forty people,
who since 1976 confessed to a crime
that DNA tests later proved erroneous.
While the article suggests
that the downtrodden are among
the likeliest to be induced to confession,
there are also people like Mr. Lowery,
who claimed he was just “pressed beyond endurance by persistent interrogators.”

Are we, the annually penitent,
simply coerced into our confession –
reading from the ancient script in our machzor -
because its ‘what we are to do on Yom Kippur?’
Have we,
like Lowery,
been duped,
intimidated even into false confession?

How do we hold the discordant truths of
The sins we did not commit
with the all encompassing
“Al Chet Shechatanu L’fanecha” –
“I have sinned against you.”
How do we turn the acrostic confession of Ashamnu, written out for us centuries ago,
And that after years of recitation,
can become, Rabbi Louis Jacobs suggests,
a “purely mechanical act devoid of inwardness”
Into a personal truth,
That is unique to the moment,
Not to the masses.
So that when we have actually sinned,
when we have actually hurt
our loved ones, ourselves, God –
we can infuse what may have been
previously empty confessions
with truth, meaning, and honesty.

The modern Hebrew utterance – slicha –
Of many meanings -
Excuse me! I'm sorry! Pardon me?
Is rooted biblically.
While often a casual statement,
Its origins resonate an emphatic plea
for forgiveness, for pardon.

Slicha is not so different from the English “Sorry,”
rooted in the Old English “Sarig”
meaning distressed, grieved, or full of sorrow.

But many utterances of slicha and sorry
have gone the way of speech acts,
phatic expressions – essentially small talk
like “Hey, how’s it going”
or “What’s up?”
In the US, we know not to expect
a real answer to those questions
And often on the phone, awkwardness ensues
As both participants utter some sort of
“Hey, how’s it going, Good, I’m fine, cool.”
Phatic, general or casual, has become
the socially acceptable way of communicating.

The language of our daily lives is casual, is phatic
But the language of prayer is emphatic.
Traditionally, our confessional liturgy
is recited 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur.
So many times
we have the opportunity to read these words
And to infuse them with personal meaning,
Emphasizing and accentuating
our deepest held truths.
Let not your Yom Kippur confession
go the way of small talk.
Let it not be hollow language,
mired with conditional statements.
Let it not be uttered simply because it was written.
Rather -
live in the discord of apologizing for that
which you’ve not done,
love the opportunity to repent for committing sins,
and causing pain, of which you were unaware
Or remain silent and confess only to the sins
You know you’ve committed.
Or beat your chest twice for those which
Weigh most heavily on you this year.
Or beat your chest
for the one who will never repent,
Knows not how to repent,
or for whom forgiveness and reconciliation
are of great distance.
Adon Ha-slichot, O, Source of Forgiveness,
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu –
Forgive us, Pardon Us, Grant Us Atonement.

*Sorry (kind of) to my brother for public slander.