Monday, November 30, 2009

Saying Sorry

Is there anyone you need to forgive at this point? I asked him.

"I've forgiven them already," he said.



Have they forgiven you?

He looked away.

"You know, we have a tradition. When you go to a funeral, you're supposed to stand by the coffin and ask the deceased to forgive anything you've ever done."

He made a face.

"Personally, I don't want to wait that long."

I remember when the Reb made his most public of apologies. It was his last High Holiday sermon as the senior rabbi of the temple.

He could have used the occasion to reflect on his accomplishments. Instead he asked forgiveness from his flock. He apologized for not being able to save more marriages, for not visiting the homebound more frequently, for not easing more pain of parents who had lost a child, for not having money to help widows or families in economic ruin. He apologized for teenagers with whom he didn't spend enough teaching time. He apologized for no longer being able to come to workplaces for brown bag lunch discussions. He even apologized for the sin of not studying every day, as illness and commitments had stolen precious hours.

"For all these, God of forgiveness," he concluded, "forgive me, pardon me..."

Officially, that was his final "big" sermon.

"Grant me atonement" were his last three words.

And now the Reb was urging me not to wait.

"Mitch, it does no good to be angry or carry grudges."

He made a fist. "It churns up inside. It does you more harm than the object of your anger."

So let it go? I asked.

"Or don't let it get started in the first place," he said. "You know what I found over the years? When I had a disagreement with someone, and they came to talk to me, I always began by saying, 'I've thought about it And in some ways maybe you're right.'"

"Now, I didn't always believe that. But it made things easier. Right from the start, they relaxed. A negotiation could take place. I took a volatile situation and, what's the word...?"

Defused it?

"Defused it. We need to do that. Especially with family."

"You know in our tradition, we ask forgiveness from everyone--even casual acquaintances. But with those we are closest with--wives, children, parents--we too often let things linger. Don't wait, Mitch. It's such a waste."

He told me a story. A man buried his wife. At the gravesite he stood by the Reb, tears falling down his face.

"I loved her," he whispered.

The Reb nodded.

"I mean... I really loved her."

The man broke down.

"And... I almost told her once."

The Reb looked at my sadly.

"Nothing haunts like the things we don't say."

Later that day, I asked the Reb to forgive me for anything I might have ever said or done that hurt him. He smiled and said that while he couldn't think of anything, he would "consider all such matters addressed."

Well, I joked, I'm glad we got that over with.

"You're in the clear."

Timing is everything.

"That's right. Which is why our sages tell us to repent exactly one day before we die."

But how do you know it's the day before you die? I asked.

He raised his eyebrows.


-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, pages 210-212

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