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Apologies are Like Cheese: Preparing for the High Holidays

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

I recently had the opportunity to ask forgiveness after a mentor and colleague wrote to me about a situation where I had "dropped the ball." I ignored the email at first, then sighed heavily before opening it. The process brought me into our holy day, the Hebrew month of Elul which this year starts on September 1st. It's meant to be train us for Rosh HaShanah, though it’s a training which never really stops. It's preparing us for teshuvah - the process of turning around to face ourselves, to face each other, to take responsibility for our actions, apologize, and re-commitment to do better.

After reflection and conversation with a close friend, I've realized there are very different kinds of apologies and that these may be a bit like cheese, taking time to mature. The easiest kind are when we recognize a wrong we've done to another as soon as we've done it. These are the kind when there isn't a lot at stake and it's relatively easy to say, "I'm sorry." These mistakes are recent ones, the pain is fresh and clear. We notice our regret right away and seer how the damage might be repaired. I think of these apologies like the mozarella cheese, which Rabbi Google tells me can be made at home in 30 min. It's like the cheap cheddar at the store.

At the other end of the spectrum are apologies that we might never make. Think of the sometimes-wonderfully-stinky-aged cheeses, the expensive kind. Here's a list of the oldest ones. Sometimes we’ll never make them “just because,” sometime because the relationship does not seem important enough. However, too often these come from our puffed-up sense of ego. At other times they are because the relationship is too toxic and too unsafe to engage in any way.

There is an important sub-category here, the cultural and often gender-based expectation of apologies. These expectations have nothing to do with who caused harm, the request of these can be a kind of abusive gaslighting in and of itself. Sometimes these expectations expand beyond gender into an entire “midwestern-nice”, perhaps Puritan, expectations which undermine possibilities for truth telling and real reconciliation. These expectations demand “always apologize, whether you mean it or not, and no action of reparation is required” This is the opposite of teshuvah.

However, some of the most poignant and fruitful apologies are in the middle. These are the kinds of apologies which are hard, sometimes taking weeks, months, or even years to mature, like a really good cheese. These are the kind where there is something really important at stake. Usually, they're the apologies that we need to make to friends (or former friends) or family. For me, they're like the blue-aged cheese, that's a few years old. It's a bit hard to swallow for the average mortal, but you know that a lot went into figuring out that this thing could actually be eaten, then lots of trial-and-error to reproduce it, and lots of work after that to make it good. These middle-of-the-road apologies are not actually middle of the road at all. They are what make a mensch - not just a person who does good because that's easy. A mentsch is someone who owns their flaws, does so flaw-fully, and does not back away. There's a lot at stake in these apologies, our sense of self and place in the world, a mentsch-y desire to be known as good, or kind, or dependable, or whatever character traits we hold most dear while also struggling to live up to them. Maturing oneself into creating these requires a commitment to actually change who we are a bit and definitely how we act.

These apologies call for courage and compassion, for patience and alacrity, for spaciousness and the awareness that we all have an expiration date at which point no more apologies can be made. I know I have a few of these which I'm still maturing into and they may take a few more months or years. I won't let myself off the hook for working on them, but neither can I push myself too quickly because if I do, their insincerity will create more wounds, not healing.

How is your teshuvah this year?


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