On rare occasions, she surfaces in my dreams. During these nights, she’s a loving friend, her expressions animated, her laughter loud and long.
In waking life, I haven’t spoken to her since my children, now 6 and 9, were tiny toddlers so demanding that I couldn’t summon the energy to focus on our fight, even as the flames roared beyond control. By the time I was paying attention, our friendship was extinguished.
Or is it?
Every year around this time, as Jews prepare for the High Holy Days, as we seek to repent, to repair, to return to a more spiritual state or to a relationship that once was enriching — I think, maybe it’s possible to heal the rift with this friend. And still: I hesitate. She politely rebuffed me the last time I tried, and in my experience, apologies can exacerbate rather than ease tensions.
In previous Septembers, I’ve more closely considered my behavior with my nearest and dearest, those with whom “you can be a lunatic,” as Rabbi David Kalb of the 92Y puts it. Rabbi Kalb exhorts me to continue working on this process, and I will. I do find, however, that with these individuals I’ve already established a familiar process of moving beyond the hurt. Ultimately, we know the argument will end.
Plus, when I broach the subject of seasonal apologies with my family one night at dinner, I speak to the wall. “She’s so talented,” remarks my daughter Talia, who is 9, continuing an earlier, unrelated conversation about the singing voice of a fourth-grade pal. My son Joel, who is 6, lays himself across my chair and announces, “God didn’t make the world.” My husband Jeremy volunteers a quote by the atheist Richard Dawkins.
And so it is that this autumn, I plan to step beyond my closest circle of family members — to a realm where I am even less adept in the art of apology.
Rabbi Kalb, who is director of Jewish education at 92Y, says at this time of year, we so often emphasize teshuvah, or repentance. But we really need to speak more about mechilah, or forgiveness. “The imagery of bending is so important,” he says, noting the symbolism of the curved shofar, as well as the practice of prostrating oneself during the High Holy Days’ Aleinu prayer. In many congregations, this is the only time when worshipers bow from a kneeling position.
Though it generally takes at least two to argue, the person seeking to repair a relationship needs to focus solely on her own misdeeds. According to Maimonides, an individual who wants to repent needs to identify the transgression out loud; to express sincere remorse; and resolve not to do it again.
But how to even begin? Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, the author of “The Tapestry of Jewish Time,” among other works, advises a short hand-written card rather than an e-mailed note, when approaching someone like my estranged ex-friend.
Rabbi Cardin also warns that “you’ve got to be open to failing. You need to be able to graciously accept their pain and leave on as good terms as possible. Yet you may have a lot of residual disappointment.”
A friend of a friend, who is a Westchester mother of three, relates the story of a spoken apology gone awry. She resolved the friction a year later with a written expression of regret. She had unintentionally insulted an acquaintance, calling attention to her relative lack of wealth in an affluent community. The off-hand comment had cut so deeply that the woman refused to speak to her.
But if the insulted party had rebuffed her again the following year, the Westchester mom would have dropped the matter. The mom says she learned from her rabbi that “our tradition believes that holding a grudge is one of the worst things a person can do.”
According to tradition, one should seek forgiveness three times, in three different manners — perhaps by e-mail instead of phone, or by bringing a mutual party to mediate the conflict. After those sincere attempts, the burden of the transgression transfers to the injured individual.
I think about my apology card for weeks, planning to select the wording carefully, to maybe recite a short prayer before I mail it. I do neither. And after I’ve exuberantly stuffed the envelope into the lobby mailbox, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. Have I adopted a falsely cheerful tone that will alienate rather than assuage a woman whom I now see only in my dreams? (“Happy 5772! Wishing you a year of blessings!”)
In any case, the card is Apology No. 3 — my final attempt to make amends. If it’s a third strike, I’m out. Time to move on.
Elicia Brown writes the monthly All She Wrote column. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.