Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
(Delivered by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on September 16, 2022)
I know that as Jews, we say this pretty much all year round, but it’s that time of the year again. We are in the month of Elul. The High Holy Days are almost upon us. Tomorrow night, we will have our Selichot service. As we reflect on our actions in the past year, those of us who are honest with ourselves will realize that we have sinned.
To sin is to be human. Nobody is perfect. But when we realize our imperfections, particularly when they affect other people, we try to do the right thing and apologize. Tonight, I want to tell some Torah stories about sin, apology, and forgiveness.
To echo the words of Bernie Taupin and Elton John, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” As Jews, some of our most treasured characters have had trouble with acknowledging their sins. The stories are all over the Torah.
Of course, it all starts with Adam and Eve, who sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some of our Christian brethren call this Original Sin, saying that all of our sins are descendants of this original one, and that the tendency to sin is ingrained in us as human beings because of this. After all, Adam’s name in Hebrew literally means, “man.”
While I do agree that we humans have a tendency to sin, because yes, we are human, we shouldn’t hide behind this excuse. When we do something wrong, we shouldn’t make excuses for it. We should do the right thing and apologize. If Adam and Eve are the model for sin, they certainly aren’t the model for forgiveness. They never said they were sorry. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.
Sarah, our first matriarch, told her husband Abraham to abandon his other wife, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael. She never apologized for it. This is what we read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.
The way I see it, Abraham, who was known as the first Jew, also made a serious error that he never apologized for. On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the Binding of Isaac, in which Abraham almost sacrificed his son. The story even starts with the words, וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם, “And HaShem tested Abraham.”
We often say that Abraham passed the test, because he was willing to offer his son as a sacrifice, but I read this story quite differently. HaShem wanted to make a point that child sacrifice is never OK. I believe Abraham failed the test, resulting in the necessity for commandments against human sacrifice, and, especially, child-sacrifice. It was only at the last minute that HaShem told Abraham to stop. HaShem said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear G!d, since you have not withheld your son from me.” I think G!d was trying to say, “Abraham, I’m glad you want to listen to Me at all times, but look how carried away you got. You were willing to sacrifice your loved one without even asking me to reconsider? You’ve definitely asked Me to reconsider in the past. You begged me to save the Sodomites, who had sinned. Yet, with your son Isaac, who has done nothing wrong, you obeyed My will without hesitation.” And no, Abraham did not apologize. Not to Isaac, and not to HaShem.
Jacob abuses his needy brother Esau by demanding his birthright as payment for food, even though Esau says he is “at the point of death.” Where was your sense of tzedakah, Jacob? Why couldn’t you have fed the hungry for free? It is actually Esau who later shows enthusiastic forgiveness towards him after Jacob shows an excellent prototype of apologizing, having bowed low towards his brother seven times. Yes, we know that Jews should only bow to HaShem, but at least Jacob was making a clear effort of goodwill.
Joseph’s brothers were terrible to him, and while they begged for mercy before he revealed his true identity, they never clearly apologized once Joseph made himself known to them. Joseph eventually showed mercy to his brothers, but it was not a proper forgiveness. He made sure to have plenty of fun at their expense before their reconciliation. He tied up his brother Simeon, and framed his brother Benjamin. Joseph’s brother Reuben, not learning from the Binding of Isaac, even promised that if he did not return Benjamin to their father Jacob, that Jacob had permission to kill Reuben’s two sons.
Even Moses, who spoke with HaShem face to face, sinned. He left this world by water, through his actions at the Waters of Meribah. He never apologized, and in an act reminiscent of Cain, he even protested his fate, before HaShem rebuked him.
To be clear, our ancestors had plenty of merit. I tell you these stories not to insult our ancestors, but to reframe why the stories exist. The Torah is trying to teach us a lesson. Most stories in the Torah are there as an example either of what to do, or what not to do. In these cases, it is an example of what not to do.
The lesson is not that we shouldn’t sin, because as humans, we will always sin. The lesson is that when we sin, we need to apologize for it. Our ancestors didn’t always do that, and we should take their example and improve upon it. Though we are human, we need to find the holy spark inside us, and summon the power to meaningfully apologize.
HaShem is truly Eloah Selichot, the G!d of Forgiveness. G!d understands both sides of the coin. HaShem not only forgives, but even understands how hard it is to admit that we regret hurting someone. G!d knows from experience! In the book of Jeremiah, G!d actually says that She was sorry Her actions caused harm. She said “I regret the punishment I have brought upon you.”
It was Moses who outlined G!d’s capacity to forgive, calling Them: “El Rachum V’Chanun.” Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.
I recently read about how Thomas Edelmann, the grandson of a Nazi, apologized to Hanna Ehereniech, a Jew, for the actions of his grandfather against her grandfather. And she forgave him. Reminiscent of HaShem, this happened in the 3rd generation. Anyone can ask for forgiveness. Even Nazis, and the descendants of Nazis. And some people might say, “No, I can’t forgive you, but I appreciate that you are at least trying to apologize. It’s something.”
And now, I’m going to ask you to forgive me.
Before I can say to G!d on Yom Kippur, I have sinned against You, first I must say to everyone else, I have sinned against you.
Congregants of Am HaYam, and of course, Rabbi Sacks: I want to apologize for anything I did to wrong you in the past year. This community means so much to me, and it pains me to think that I might have hurt you. But inevitably, I am sure I have.
If anyone has something specific that they want me to apologize for, I encourage you to find me later, so you can bring it to my attention.
I have sinned. Like our ancestors, I am only human. But that is no excuse. That does not make it OK. And I am truly sorry.
 Genesis 3.
 Genesis 21.
 Genesis 22.
 Genesis 25.
 Genesis 33.
 Genesis 42:24 and Genesis 44 respectively.
 Numbers 20.
 Deuteronomy 3.
 Jeremiah 42:10.
 Exodus 34:6-7.
 Miller, Yvette Alt. “Nazi’s Grandson Reaches Out to Apologize.” Aish.com, 18 Nov. 2020, https://aish.com/nazis-grandson-reaches-out-to-apologize/.