The Art of the Good Apology


The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

Elul Sweat


I associate the last few days of Elul with sweat.

Sure it’s hot. Pretty much anywhere north of the equator, this is going to be one of the warmer months of the year. Even in the Bay Area, where it’s “always” moderate, we are usually fussing about about the heat towards the end of Elul.

My Elul sweat has more to do with the things left for me to do: the phone calls I have not yet made and the apologies I am yet to give. As long as I’m still dreading them, my teshuvah is incomplete.

The best apology is made out of concern for the other person. When I sweat, I know that the focus of my teshuvah is still on myself: my embarrassment at imperfection, my need to appear flawless, my fear of blame. Excuses keep flashing to mind: I was busy, I was upset, I was depressed, I was anxious, I was distracted, my feelings were hurt… those are all about me. They are not teshuvah.

The best apology is made of concern for the other person. The only way I know to that place is to imagine myself in their shoes, to cultivate compassion. How would I feel on the other side of my behavior?

Then I sweat some more because that isn’t fun, either. I must grab that energy and take it where it will do some good. I must seize it and make teshuvah.

I wish you a fruitful Elul.

Keeping the Change

Coffee cup & change

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s left over, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?

Ready, Set, Sukkot!


For years and years, I intended to build a sukkah in which to celebrate Sukkot, but when the holiday came around, I was somehow caught by surprise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the fact that I needed to do some Sukkot preparation during Elul, as well as the preparation for the High Holy Days.

The two sets of preparation are not mutually exclusive. Preparation for the High Holy Days is mostly a private matter for anyone who is not on a synagogue staff.  We examine our hearts, we go back through the previous year, we make amends. It can be hard emotional work. Preparation for Sukkot is a matter of mechanics:

  1. Do I have the stuff to build the sukkah?
  2. Do I know where all of it is?
  3. Do I need to repair or replace anything?
  4. Do I want to add anything? New decorations? Lights?

After the first year, it’s really not a big deal, but it has to be done, because sukkah building should begin, ideally, immediately after Yom Kippur. I have learned that most of it dovetails quite easily with preparations for the High Holy Days; while I am checking through supplies, I make my mental lists.

This year I’m still looking for my sukkah walls, but I have found the rug and the furniture. I’ve ordered a new bamboo mat for schach, and I got some new twinkly lights. Prep done, if I can just find those walls…!

So this is my reminder to you, dear readers, that if you are planning to build a sukkah this year, it’s time to figure out where you put the sukkah supplies from last year. If you don’t plan to build a sukkah, I also have a suggestion: as you make your lists of people with whom you need to have important conversations, make a list of people with whom to sit and enjoy during Sukkot. If you can’t sit in a kosher sukkah, sit in an almost-kosher sukkah. If you have no access to any kind of sukkah, think where you might share a cup of tea or coffee (or chocolate!) with those friends, one by one.

Sukkot, too, is part of our renewal at the beginning of the year. Don’t wait to prepare – have your plans ready. Beyond the solemn self-examination of the High Holy Days awaits the joy of Sukkot!

Counting Blessings, Elul Style

exercise equipment

“I’m not in the business of making people skinny, I am in the business of making people strong.” – Brittany Shaddle

Elul is a time for taking stock of one’s life, and part of that is counting blessings. In May of 2010 I made an appointment that I wasn’t sure I wanted to make: I called a personal trainer.

I thought only movie stars and billionaires worked with trainers, but I had a problem: I had a long history of getting hurt while exercising. I’d start with great intentions, and then in a week or two I’d be in the doctor’s office getting a review of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for a dinged-up body part. I figured it was time to get some supervision.

This is how I wound up calling Brittany. She had a review from a man in his 70’s in which he talked about how much she helped him. Her credentials were impressive: a degree in Kinesiology and certification as a trainer. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t be mean to me.

That was five years ago, and now I count Brittany among my blessings. She’s kept me moving from 55 to 60, and taught me that whatever the diagnosis for my pain problems, the best medicine is movement. A sciatica flare-up last weekend was limited largely because she had taught me how to move through it. As for the expense, her fee for an hour was less than I had expected, and it’s worth it.

Brittany is a good woman: she and her husband Mike are two of the best and kindest people I know. She’s younger than my kids, but she’s one of my best teachers, and not just about exercise. Her positive attitude about every challenge inspires me.

Who is a blessing in your life? Be sure to take some time this Elul and let them know what they have done for you. As the liturgy will remind us, we don’t know what the future will bring. Let’s not leave the good words unsaid.

Elul Moon

It’s 15 Elul. We are halfway through the month of preparation for the High Holy Days.


What is not yet done?
Who has not yet been called?
What have I not yet admitted to myself?

It’s not too late. 15 days remain.

Photo of tonight’s moon by Richard Ewanick of Henderson, NV. I use it with his permission. He retains all rights.

Suffering is Not a Show

Puna district, Lava Flow
Map Showing Lava Flow and Population in Lower Puna District (Dr. Mark Kimura)

Dr. Mark Kimura of the University of Hawaii is on a mission. He wants (1) to empower the people of the Puna District of Hawaii by giving them information, and he wants (2) people “on the mainland” – that is, not living in Hawaii – to understand what is happening in the rural communities of the southeast corner of the Big Island. Kilauea volcano is erupting, creating new land and destroying everything in its path, and human beings are already suffering uncertainty and loss.

The trouble is that usually we folks on the mainland are not interested in such things until they become a show. In 1990, I remember watching the network news and seeing the homes of Kalapana burning up as lava from Kilauea volcano oozed through the town. The human beings who had only hours or days before evacuated those homes were not in the picture. They were not as photogenic as molten lava flow, glowing in the dark, setting houses on fire.

Twenty years after, I and a group of other tourists picked our way across the lava, on our way to see the steam and fire where the burning rock was now entering the sea. Someone casually asked our guide where he grew up, and he pointed across the lava field. “In Kalapana, about there,” he said. “But we had to leave in 1990.” Suddenly I realized that what I had seen on TV was someone’s home. I was ashamed that I had not understood that before.

This past June 27, the volcano began erupting in a new direction, towards the subdivisions around the town of Pahoa. The area around Pahoa is dotted with small farms and homes in subdivisions. It is a world away from the big resorts on the Kona Coast. Right now, the lava is flowing, and no one is sure exactly where it will go, only that sooner or later it could destroy homes and businesses, and sooner or later it could cut the highway that provides land access to the world outside. “Sooner” could be next week. “Later” could be anytime after that.

Sooner or later the photographs of burning houses and flowing lava could be on the news here on the mainland. Sooner or later those photos or photos of another spectacular disaster will be part of the flow of info into our TV’s, our computers, our smartphones. I ask that we all take a moment, when we see those photos, to remember that real people live there, that real people are losing their homes, that someday someone will point across a lava field and say, “My home was about there. It’s under the rock now.”

I will finish with Dr. Kimura’s words from the Facebook page he set up to inform others about the situation:

I wanted two things when I started this FB page: (1) people in lower Puna feel empowered (at least a little) by understanding the possible ramifications of the lava flow reaching the ocean; and (2) the rest of the world learns how serious the situation is and responds accordingly. This one is for the latter.

I don’t want people outside of Hawaii to just come here right before the lava hits a residential area (if it does) and simply enjoy the “show”. I want them to care. They need to know real people exist, not just the hot lava burning down the trees.

At the moment, the only place I can suggest to send funds to help is the Hawaii Chapter of the Red Cross. If I learn of other options, I will post them here.