In ‘The Crime I Did Not Commit’, author Sarah Rigler relates the experience of her cousin Circuit Court judge Alice Gilbert, and her innovative idea. She required every criminal convicted in her courtroom to write a 2000 word essay answering the questions
How did my crime affect me? How did it affect my family? How did it affect my community? And what can be done to prevent such crimes in the future?
You would think that the essays would elicit an ode to regret and remorse. But the reality is far from it. Let’s take the case of a drunk driver, Frank, who killed a teenage girl. Frank did start off by saying it was sad that ‘this young girl who should be alive, isn’t’, -note he could not even say the word dead- but proceeded to say he sees no reason why her friends and family should be harassing him with telephone calls at home and at work. Furthermore he blamed her because she was trying to help a dog on the road who was hit, and her boyfriend was doing a lousy job of redirecting traffic.
Why do people have such a hard time owning up to the wrongs they have done.
By the way this is not the first time that this phenomenon of placing blame on others has been noticed. You only have to turn to the story in the Torah of the beginning of mankind. In Genesis 3:13 when G-d calls Adam and Eve to task for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the only thing He asked them not to do, what do they answer? Adam says to G-d the woman who you matched me with gave it to me. Not only does he try to absolve himself of responsibility for what he did, but he implicitly blames G-d to for placing him with Eve, when G-d did it to alleviate his loneliness. And when the Almighty turns to Eve and asks her what she did, her reaction is the same, she said the snake tricked me and that is why I ate it.’
I think there are a number of different reasons why this is so, why it is so difficult for us to admit we are wrong and to be accountable for our actions. The first reason is simply that we want to be right. If we get into an argument with our friend/bf/sibling, admitting we are wrong means we lose, and that it’s our fault, and many people do not like to be wrong. We are competitive by nature (or at least I sometimes am, especially when I am playing monopoly with the kids), and we want to come out on top, we want to be right. But now the kids do not want to play monopoly with me because I am too competitive. If we do not admit we are wrong we do not come out on top in the long run. We will just push people away.
The second reason we do not want to be wrong is that owning up to our bad behavior means I now owe them one. They have one over me. I will have to be nice to them next time, to let them choose which restaurant to go to next time we go out, or to let them have the last word on some future disagreement.
But I believe the third reason is the greatest block to owning up to our errors, and it has to do with how we feel about ourselves. If I admit to my sins, then I am guilty, and being guilty means I am a bad person. I am rotten and bad and our egos cannot sustain that kind of beating. With all the heart beating we are doing on Yom Kippur, this is a pitfall we have to avoid in our lives, and especially on Yom Kippur. So how do we admit that we are wrong, to others, To G-d and to ourselves on Yom Kippur without feeling like garbage?
This feeling that we are bad is based on an outlook which is not a Jewish one, and which I believe is not the correct one about the true nature of us as human beings. I think this feeling is so prevalent because of the Christian belief is that humans are born with original sin permeates the consciousness of our society. The Christian belief is that the human being is bad by nature, and without belief which brings redemption, we will remain in our sinful state. You may have noticed that I specifically avoid using the word sin over Yom Kippur because it carries with it this association of my being intrinsically bad. So many people feel that by owning up to our wrongs we are just reinforcing what we really know deep down, that we let ourselves and others down, and that we are a rotten. While is true we may have done something bad, and gave in to our selfishness, our anger, or our desire to take a moral short-cut does not make us into a bad person.
The Jewish outlook is presented in a famous story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, where two people are taunting Rabbi Meir. It does not say what they did but in one of the other incidents when a Rabbi was taunted, every time he went to the bathhouse, they stole his towel and his clothes. This must have been worse, because R Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Bruria asked him how he could wish such a thing. She pointed out that in the verse ‘May the sins be wiped out from the land’ (Psalms 104:35) it says the sins and not the sinner. So you should pray not they they be wiped out, but that their sins be wiped out. And if you look at the end of the verse it says ‘and may the wicked be no more’, it does not say that they should die. Instead, says Bruria (the wife is right again), it must mean that they are ‘no more’ because they changed. So she tells her husband you should pray to G-d that they repent, and that is how they would be no more.
The Torah outlook is that when someone does something wrong they do a bad act, they are not a bad person, but they have done a bad actions. (There are unfortunately, exceptions, there are people who are truly evil, your Hitlers, Addas, ISIS) Bay the way this important distinction between the person and their actions is also crucial for parenting 101, to make sure this is communicated to one’s children when they misbehave. We believe that within us is a Diving soul that want to do good, and wants to be giving, sensitive, understanding and spiritual, but we give in to our lower voice that is selfish, indifferent and pleasure seeking. The Torah views man in a state of struggle, which means that we will necessarily make mistakes and mess us, that is the human condition. And if we accept that in ourselves, then we will probably see that others will accept it in us and it will be easier to say ‘I am sorry’.
A truly sincere apology will usually receive forgiveness. It will allow us to not be defensive when someone gives us criticism. And if we are a person that is not defensive, then others will tell us when they are hurt because they know it will elicit an apology rather than making us defensive. I recently came across a story that beautifully shows how on can be open to criticism, and also offer explanations without being aggressive. This true story is related by Shlomo Horowitz. He needed some guitar supplies for a kumzitz, and he found a local music store. Before going here he looked at the reviews online. This is what Suzanne wrote online about Mike’s Music Store: TC 3 reviews a year ago-
It is all about greed and money. They have a very unfair makeup/cancelation policy. So if class falls on a holiday ( Ex. July 4th) and the center is closed, they still charge you for the class, They do not pay the teachers for that day either, so free money for them. According to their policy it is up to the costumer to schedule a make up. However, the teachers are all always fully booked. It is almost impossible to schedule a make up class. Their solution: They offer substitutes. But they are missing the point, after working with a teacher for many years, I don’t need a stranger who has never met my child nor know anything about his progress hanging out with him for 30 minutes. I don’t call that a “make up ” class. That is just a waste of time and money. Also their parking stinks.
Bottom line: I don’t recommend them, Mike and his wife are greedy people.
Shlomo said ‘I finished reading the review and had my doubts about going. I didn’t want to give my business to a greedy, inconsiderate person. But then I noticed that the owner, Mike, had responded. I read further,’
Wow, where do I start?
How about, “Mike and his wife are greedy people.”? Congratulations, you’ve ruined my day. This is so untrue and hurtful. You don’t know me or my wife. You have no idea how much of our time and money we donate to our community, to those in need, to veterans, to schools every year. I may be a lot of things, but greedy isn’t one of them.
“They have a very unfair makeup/cancellation policy.” Actually, I believe our makeup policy to be just about the most fair I’ve seen in the music lesson business. If your lesson falls on a holiday that we are closed (Ex. July 4th) we PRORATE that month and you actually do not pay for that lesson. If you need to cancel a lesson, we only ask to be notified by the night before. If you do need to cancel on the same day of your lesson we pay our teacher for the lesson, so you would not be able to make it up.
“The teachers are always fully booked.” This is not exactly true, but we do our best to keep their schedules pretty full. Perhaps if our teachers weren’t so amazing they may have more openings?
“They offer substitutes.” This is true. If your teacher is sick or on vacation we will have a substitute. When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I would show up once in a while and there would be a substitute. I would actually be excited to learn something brand new and different from a new instructor. I realize that some kids and parents prefer not to have substitutes. Not a problem. All you need to do is let us know you don’t want a sub and we will always let you know if/when your teacher is unavailable and we will reschedule your lesson.
“Parking stinks.” I can’t really dispute this one. The parking lot is a bit small for our growing business. We’re working on possible solutions and will let everyone know when we find an answer.
Shlomo says: I was touched by his vulnerability, his admission that he wasn’t perfect, and the dignified way in which he explained himself and addressed the complaints. I want to meet this guy, I thought to myself. He didn’t respond and claim he’s perfect and he’s a gem of a human being, and that his store and policies, parking, etc were all fantastic. He admitted that he wasn’t flawless and that certain things need fixing. But he also elegantly explained that certain perceptions the reviewer had were mistaken. Mike was vulnerable and honest, and I found that so rare and refreshing.
I share this true story with you because it shows how someone can be honest and admit their imperfections without becoming defensive and disingenuous. The word Jew comes from the name Yehuda, one of the sons of Jacob. This name has its roots in the word Hodaah which means to admit. To be a Jew is to give recognition where it is due and to be able to admit when we are wrong.
This Yom Kippur let’s all strive to be able to admit and own up to our mistakes because it is only by doing so that we can begin to mend the damage we may have done, to ourselves, to others and to our relationship with others. And in doing so we say ‘I am sorry’ and we take responsibility for our wrongful actions but know they are not the deepest representation of who we are. For we believe that ultimately our true selves is our Divine soul, which strives to do good and to make the world better. This is who we strive to become on Yom Kippur, to purify ourselves and to get in touch with that Divine essence within each of us.