(Yom Kippur Remarks: 2018)
Two years ago, some of you may not have been lucky enough to catch GW Hillel’s World Debut of our take on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”. Besides sharing my name – Adena BIEBER Kirstein – with the Biebs, I also share sick beats. In another life, I dreamed of being Lauryn Hill, bringing my soulful rhythms to a global audience. Instead, I became a Hillel Director, an excellent second choice if I do say so myself.
For this video, our Hillel staff team dressed in neon colors and lip synced to Justin’s hit song, right in time for Yom Kippur. For those of you not well versed in Top 40 hits, in short, the song has Justin pondering whether it’s too late to say sorry.
Two years later, I’m here to tell you change is possible. I no longer think that song is particularly relevant for this Yom Kippur. I’m not here tonight to care whether it’s too late to say sorry – I’m here tonight to say something revolutionary, on this holiest of Jewish nights, for Yom Kippur.
STOP. SAYING. SORRY.
Sorry for running five minutes late. Sorry for not seeing you earlier when you were walking towards the elevator (even though I eventually held the door for you). Sorry for not being the first one to go down and get the laundry. Sorry to the dentist when she was being far too harsh with my gums and my mouth wasn’t opened wide enough. Sorry I didn’t see your text immediately and made you wait two WHOLE minutes for a response. Sorry I’ll be travelling for work and won’t be in my office for work to help you with your work while I’m doing my work. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
And that was just this week.
At the start of this summer, this overuse of sorry was starting to get to me so I turned to my most often consulted rabbi, Rav Google. I came across an article that pushed me to make a simple tweak in my use of the word sorry –
replace it, instead, with THANK YOU.
I immediately aimed to adopt this new practice. In theory, this is an easy shift of vocabulary. But I quickly learned it was more challenging than I anticipated. There are sorrys that are easy to replace with thank yous – and sorrys that are not.
Let’s say, for example, I run five minutes late to a coffee date. I arrive, rushed, and instead of apologizing, I say this – Thank you so much for your patience. Easy, right?
But what about the following –
I’m in the elevator and the doors are quickly closing. My eyes are focused on my phone and I don’t see someone running towards me to hop in. I quickly put my arm in the door, make sure it’s opened, and the person gets on. ‘Sorry about that!’
What’s the right replacement? Thank you for…understanding that I’m a distracted American who doesn’t pay attention as much as I should? Thank you for…not being angry I was more interested in my Insta feed than you, a holy human being running towards me?
If you truly plow the fields of this holiday, really work the day as an opportunity for self-reflection instead of simply hunger, you’ll recall a key concept we’ll confront again and again – we’ve all messed up – big time, in many ways. But with Tsuvah (repetenace), Tzedakah (giving), and Tefillah (prayer), we can turn the ship around.
Last time I checked, that didn’t mean – if you say sorry way too much, it’s all good.
Gratitude, when really worked at, cracks a soul right open. It creates space that a sorry rarely can.
About 10 days ago, I was sitting in shul listening to a man named Josh speak. Josh is married to Aliza, and while I don’t know them terribly well, I would call them a spiritual power couple. Josh leads services, has a stunning voice, speaks eloquently and with great intention. Aliza is a stellar educator, bringing Torah to the masses in easily accessible but deeply considered ways. Neither screams from the rooftops about how fabulous they are; they are humble and diligent in their pursuit of education.
I happened to be sitting behind Aliza while Josh was speaking. He was helping to prepare the congregation for the High Holidays, speaking about the liminal space of the 10 days, when we have the capacity to be simultaneously heightened spiritually but ‘not quite there yet’. He shared with the hundreds of people that were there a stunning thought:
He quoted Aliza, repeating a thought she had about the shofar. The sounds of the teruah are the sounds of din, harsh judgment – dah dah dah dah – The shofar calls us to get our acts together, to remember we are being judged by our actions. But tekiah, right beside it, is rachamim, mercy – daaaaaaah – a long slow warm embrace. It’s okay. You did the best you could. There’s always time to make change. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it?
So naturally, I leaned forward to Aliza when Josh was finished speaking and I said – WOW, Aliza – you are a rock star! You came up with that?
Aliza immediately laughed, blushing and said – NO! It was Ramban! I told him that!
A husband, in front of hundreds of people, gave his wife credit for something that was actually shared by one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time. If I were Aliza, as humble and uninterested in the spotlight as she is, would I need an apology? Was Aliza embarrassed, with her peers thinking she took credit for something that wasn’t true?
Should Josh apologize to his wife?
Sorry, Aliza – sorry I misquoted Ramban and sorry I misquoted you. Sorry for potentially telling hundreds of people you took credit for something that you didn’t actually say. Aliza may be embarrassed, may be angry. Conversation over.
But what if their conversation, on the way home from shul, instead went something like this:
Aliza – thank you for not only being such a great partner to me, but for teaching me so deeply. Thanks for being someone I constantly learn and grow from and with. Thanks for sharing the holidays with me and for helping me get ready for this auspicious period of the year. And thanks for your understanding when I don’t listen as closely as I should, when I thought you said YOU had a thought but instead it was Ramban all along.
I’m guessing any of you in any kind of relationship – a friendship, a parent/child connection, a romantic partnership – can imagine what is lifted up in this scenario by a thank you instead of shut down by a sorry.
After my summer of attempted thank yous over sorrys, I’ve been made keenly aware of two things. The first is that saying sorry so much is the ultimate example of the boy who cried wolf. We say it so much in this country and so often, that is has hollowed out the very meaning of the word. I’d ask you – is our country a more empathetic place these days before we say sorry so much? Are we leading the world in civil discourse and thoughtfulness as a result? I think not.
But secondly, in an odd turn of events, the thoughtfulness around thank you instead of sorry leads to a much truer pursuit of the tshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah that we speak of today. Let’s call it the Cycle of Fewer Sorries.
Let’s go back to me running five minutes late. Before I say thank you though, I really need to think about why I ran late in the first place. Maybe I have too much on my plate. Maybe I’m too distracted by Facebook instead of much holier pursuits. Maybe I’m taking care of something – like helping a struggling student – that may be important to share with the person I’m late for – because it will make them more open to those around them who may be struggling, too – or because it will help them to understand the challenges I’m facing running a non-profit instead of jumping down my throat for all I’m doing wrong.
I ran late because I’m not a perfect person and the person I’m running to meet probably isn’t perfect either. It’s a good thing to mutually know that about one another; it helps us to have a more meaningful conversation with one another as a starting point. Where might we go, as a result? How can we potentially work a bit harder to honor the other’s time and not be late next time, or to be more empathetic to the load others carry? How can we give – of ourselves, to each other, of our time to causes that help students that struggle – to shape the community we seek to be a part of? How can we pray – for the student I got held up with, for the ability to manage our time in meaningful ways? Tshuvah. Tzedakah. Tfillah. All because I didn’t say sorry.
I pray that we keep saying thank you this year. I will pray we reserve our sorrys for when they are really needed and merited. And I pray you have an easy and meaningful fast.
G’Mar Chatima Tovah.