Posted on September 26th, 2012
I visited my family in San Diego over Labor Day.
One night, everyone came over and we brought in dinner from a local take-out restaurant. I was sitting across from my mom as we ate. She had barbecued chicken; I had barbecued salmon.
Horrible horrible salmon.
My mom noticed that I wasn’t eating, asked me why not, and I told her that the salmon was not very good.
And so, as might be expected from any Jewish mother, she apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I’ll admit, I was taken back by the apology. She didn’t make the salmon; she didn’t buy the salmon; she didn’t tell me to eat the salmon. In fact, she had no part whatsoever in the chain of events that led that bad-tasting dead fish to find its way into my mouth.
And yet, there she was, apologizing.
I brushed off the comment at the time. But I could not shake the episode from my thoughts. Because I found it interesting that she would waste one ounce of life feeling remorseful over something for which she had no control; that she would waste words from her mouth apologizing for something of no consequence, of no import. I found it sad that something so meaningless could lead someone to feel badly, for me, about their self, maybe both.
I was troubled, because we had gone down this road before, on a much greater scale, only three months prior.
As many of you know, one week after my ordination this May, my mom was diagnosed with stage-IV synovial sarcoma: an acute cancer in her knee which metastasized throughout her lungs. I remember like yesterday the phone call.
“David,” she said. “I have some bad news.”
That’s where my memory goes black.
I do not remember how she described that bad news. I do not remember her telling me that the pain in her leg was actually an exceedingly rare cancer; I do not remember her telling me that that rare cancer had spread into fifty tumors throughout her lungs. Or of how scared she was, or how difficult the road ahead may be, or that she may die.
The next thing that I remember, remember so clearly and vividly that it might as well have happened today, is her saying two words which have haunted me since.
She said, “I’m sorry.”
Her only response to metastatic cancer, to the undeniably scary road ahead, to the shock of being healthy one day and given a death sentence the next was, “I’m sorry.” Not, “I’m scared.” Not, “This isn’t fair.” Not, “How did this happen?”
What did she mean, “I’m sorry!?” I thought. I’m sorry! She didn’t do this. She didn’t cause this. She wasn’t hurting me. She hadn’t neglected me, or abused me or ignored me. She was the victim.
But she was sorry.
I was in my car at the time, just passing Disneyland, in fact – it will never again be the happiest place on earth for me – and I immediately turned around and headed home to San Diego. I spent the next hour and a half – between the tears and the phone calls, the angst and the fear – reflecting on the apology that was, but should not have been.
Why would you apologize for something over which you have no control. Why had my mom wasted even one moment of life thinking that she had done me wrong, worrying that I was angry at her, requesting my forgiveness?
Yes, she was trying to protect me. She did not want her son, any of her children, to experience the undeniable pain that all of us would experience in the months ahead as we journeyed down the road called cancer. What mother would want anything different. But an apology? She had issues of life and death to worry about and she spent even a moment in remorse?!
Four months have passed since that horrible May day. There have been ups and downs in my mom’s journey since then – moments when I was sure she would not survive the night; days when, were it not for her adorable bald head I could forget that she has cancer. But the more I think about it, the more I reflect on my mom in all her wonder, in her gut response to say “I’m sorry” in that moment of pain and fear, the more I realize just how normal it was.
She wasn’t apologizing for getting cancer. She was apologizing for being sick. For the realization that her life’s reality would soon be bringing much pain and worry to our lives. She was apologizing for being human. And that is something we spend far too much time doing.
How much of our lives does each of us spend feeling badly about and apologizing for things over which we have no control or things which do not matter? Apologizing that we are not as rich as we wish we were, or as pretty or as successful. Apologizing for all the ways in which our very being impacts other people. Apologizing for being. Period.
This is time wasted, life thrown away. We cannot apologize for our humanity any more than we can repent for breathing air or drinking water. This is our very nature.
So while Yom Kippur is a day about apologizing; like no other on our calendar, it is also a day we risk turning into an apology for life itself. Yes, there are those upon whom the message of Yom Kippur is lost entirely, wherein teshuva and remorse are opportunities wholly missed. I am not worried about them. I am worried about those of us who take the message of repentance too far in the other direction. So let us be clear about the scope of the Day of Atonement.
The final words of Mishna Yoma, the first rabbinic thoughts on the Yom Kipppur, describe a teaching from Rabbi Eliezer:
Aveirot sh’bein adam l’Makom, Yom haKipurim mechaper. Aveirot sh’bein adam l’haveiro ein Yom haKipurim lo mechaper, ad sh’yeratsei et chaveiro.
Transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement atones. Transgressions between one person and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone, until the offended has been placated.
Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that, for sins against the Master of the Universe, God will always be willing to forgive. Yom Kippur happens, and along with it so does forgiveness for sins against the Holy One.
For sins we commit against others, we must seek forgiveness. We must acknowledge what we have done wrong, apologize and intend to change our behavior in the future.
Yes, Yom Kippur is a day about apologizing; apologizing to our Creator and apologizing to those with whom we share Creation. Were you mean to someone? Did you steal or cheat or lie? Fine. Apologize. Make amends. Commit to not going down that road again.
But it is not a day about self flagellation, of beating ourselves up and believing that we have more control over this world than we actually do. You cannot apologize for the space that you take up in this universe. You cannot apologize for being the you that you are. There is no original sin. You are pure and holy. You cannot apologize for getting sick, or for not being as intelligent as you wish you were or for loving who you love.
Why does this matter? Why am I so worried about this?
Because it is all a distraction. A facade that we put in front of our eyes to make ourselves believe that we have more control over life than we actually do. There are things out of our control. If we should learn anything from these High Holy Days it is that.
Control what you can, but leave the rest behind. Atone for what you actually did wrong. But nothing more.
Otherwise, we can spend so much time of our lives feeling badly, apologizing, atoning, that we miss out on the actual good we are supposed to do. We waste the very opportunity most intrinsic to this gift of life with which we have been blessed.
What is that?
We learn in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (4):
One time, Rabi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were walking in Jerusalem and came upon the Temple’s ruins. Rabbi Yehoshua cried out, “Woe unto us that they destroyed the place where we atone for the sins of Israel!” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai replied, “My son, do not fear. We have another form of forgiveness which is just as equal; it is gemilut hasidim – acts of loving kindness – as it is written, “For I desire kindness, and not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)
Loving acts of kindness are the antidote to transgression, the means by which we fully realize the forgiveness which we have already attained. We spend Yom Kippur fasting in repentance for the ways in which we have erred this last year, but only actualize our space in the Book of Life when we live – when we fill this world with hesed, with love and joy and all that is good and right.
And so every moment that we spend feeling bad for things over which we have no control, every second we waste apologizing for those things that make up our very humanity, not for the ways that we have erred but the ways that we have been, we undermine our own potential to fill this world with more hesed.
Olam hesed yibane (Psalms89:4), the world is built through loving kindness, we read in the Book of Psalms. We are all beings created in hesed, living in a universe which is itself the greatest expression of Divine love and kindness.
And the greatest tragedy of all, the greatest waste of this precious gift, would be to spend time feeling badly about who we are and what we have, rather than working to add more hesed to this world.
I have, after all, learned a lot about hesed in these past few months.
I’ve learned about hesed from my dad. Before the first round of chemo, my mom worried that she should not hug or kiss anyone, to prevent transmitting germs. But my dad – my mom’s ex-husband, mind you – was not satisfied with the possibility that my mom would not receive such affection for a month’s time, and so he organized a grassroots – surprise – campaign to fill the walls of my mom’s home with cards, letters and banners saying “Hugs” and “Kisses” – hundreds and hundreds of people – friends, family, members of this community and total strangers, sent in these cards for weeks. Olam hesed yibane – the world is built through loving kindness. My mom’s home, for my weeks, was supported by walls literally plastered in love.
A world built in hesed is a world in which a man – my father, my hero – will work tirelessly to bring joy and love to a sick woman, despite the fact that she is his ex-wife.
I’ve learned hesed from my friends, who have swooped in, dropped everything on their plate to be there for me and my family, my mom in particular, during her time of need. They’ve run errands, cooked meals, played chauffeur, just offered a shoulder to lean on. There are deeds without measure – the reward for which only is attained in the world to come – we read from Mishna Peah every day in Shacharit. Bikur Holim, visiting the sick, is on that list. I never understood the message of that text. Why Bikur Holim? I truly did not get it. My friends have taught me its meaning.
And I’ve learned hesed from this holy community. From the countless among you who have taken me in – a kid fresh off the boat from California – and treated me like family. Fed me, housed me, loved me. I have been welcomed here, into this new family of mine, at a time in my life that I am craving for love. And I did not need to ask for it once.
Hesed is what makes this world the beauty that it is. It is the means of our atonement. It is the stuff that creates worlds.
Atone today. Figure out the ways in which you have erred this last year, the ways that you have hurt those you love, hurt God, and hurt this earth on which we live. Do teshuva.
But then stop.
Do not become so focussed on apologies that you forget that it is human to mess up. Do not have such tunnel vision in your repentance that you waste a moment of life apologizing for the ways in which you merely existed, apologizing for the things that life has dealt you over which you had no control.
Atone today. Do teshuva. But finish, and then start doing hesed. Realize the beauty intrinsic in each of our beings.
My mom has no apology to offer for getting sick, no repentance to do. She does not need to atone for this devastating reality. That is all a distraction – a painful, futile way of avoiding what actually matters.
She could die – all of us could die – and God forbid, our loved ones should stand by our grave side and mourn not only losing us, but also all the time we wasted feeling bad for the ways that we were human.
All my mom need do this Yom Kippur and every day for the rest of her life is to keep doing the thing that she has done best since her diagnosis, that she has done every day of my life – to keep on loving me, and my sister, and my family, and life itself; filing the earth with more and more hesed with every breath she takes.
She loves me. And I love her back. More than anything in the world.
And that’s nothing to apologize for.