Sept. 11, 2020 – By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
“No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.” – William Gladstone
In the delightful children’s book The Hardest Word – A Yom Kippur Story by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn, a gigantic mythical bird called the Ziz makes a mistake and trashes his friend’s beloved vegetable garden.
When the Ziz flies to Mt. Sinai to ask God for help, God tasks the bird to search the world to find “the Hardest Word.” The Ziz embarks on his journey and finds words like “spaghetti” and “rhinoceros,” but each time, God sends the Ziz back to keep looking.
When the Ziz has exhausted his search, he visits God to announce he’s stumped. “I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s it!” God pronounces. “There are lots of words that are hard to say, but ‘I’m sorry’ is the hardest.”
This weekend, Jews will be chanting the first Selichot service of the High Holiday season. The service takes place during the Hebrew month of Elul (Aramaic for “to search”) which is an acronym for Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
This phrase from the Song of Songs is usually reserved for weddings. In this context, it is about our desire for a closer relationship with God. Selichot, usually held around midnight, includes a recitation of the “Thirteen Attributes” of God. These Attributes, originally found in Exodus after God pardons the Hebrews following the creation of the Golden Calf, speak to God’s capacity for forgiveness and compassion.
The writer Forest Rain Marcia says of the Selichot service: “Properly chanted, it forms an oratorio expressing the despair that accompanies separation from God and the desire to change and repent. The self-deprecation contained in the words, which express the feeling of life’s fleetingness, and the burden of vanity that motivates so much of what one does, all cause us to ponder how we can break the cycle of our lives and change ourselves for the better. The possibility of change and of a better life is inherent in these prayers.”
Selichot prayers are like a preamble to the High Holiday season, when we ask one another and God for forgiveness for our transgressions. Our goal is teshuvah – literally translated as “to return” to God or “repentance.”
One wonders why we have a specific occasion to ask for forgiveness. Isn’t apologizing relatively straightforward? Shouldn’t we be doing it on an ongoing basis? Well, yes and no. Human nature leads us astray sometimes. Sometimes, instead of apologizing when we should, we dig in our heels, cast blame, justify our actions. If pressed, we may issue the famous Canadian non-apology apology – “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
In our tradition, there is no place for this kind of feeble apology. The Rambam defined teshuvah in the Mishneh Torah as requiring these four steps:
- Verbally confess our mistake with details and understanding.
- Express sincere remorse with a complete and heartfelt apology.
- Do our best to right the wrong and make the person we harmed feel better.
- Resolve not to make the same mistake again – and don’t.
How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? Rabbi Judah said: When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin once and once again and he refrains from committing it. (Yoma, 86b).
In the next few weeks, like the Ziz, we are in search of the strength and wisdom to say the Hardest Word. It’s one thing to know it and another thing entirely to genuinely apologize with dignity, grace, and sincerity.
May the upcoming Days of Awe bring us the strength and humility to make peace with God and with one another. We may not be giant mythical birds, but we know the hardest word. And now is the time to say it.
Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.