Anyone who believes that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” has never studied the laws of teshuva (repentance), which outline the steps of owning and hopefully repairing missteps and misdeeds.
While teshuva is important at any time of year, the month of Elul is when we are deeply introspective about our inner compass and the need to change course. And it’s not purely an internal and private process. You can ask for forgiveness from G-d for offenses against your Creator, but this doesn’t work for the people you may have hurt. In that case, you must apologize directly to them.
And it goes way beyond lip service.
In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher) lays out the four-step process for making amends to people you may have wronged:
The idea of going through these four steps may seem daunting, but it should also inspire you. What integrity to look at your actions, decide they could have been better, and craft a spoken apology.
But there’s a deeper meaning than the spoken word, for if you look carefully, you will notice that the person who is most affected by this process is you — not the person to whom you are apologizing. In fact, the person may not even accept your apology. Of course you want to repair the hurt you caused, but the real repair is to you — and the Rambam’s process is designed to help you heal and grow.
But now, with the effortless ease of texts, WhatsApp, social media, etc., that don't require personal interaction, I seem to get more and more group apology blasts. Some are more poetic and heartfelt than others, but they are inevitably a pro forma version of: "If I have offended you or caused you any pain or suffering this year, then I ask for your forgiveness." I either don't reply or write back something even more impersonal, such as, "Thanks - and same to you."
I’m annoyed by these simplistic apologies — not because I find them disingenuous, but because at this time of year which calls for authenticity at the deepest levels, it just comes up short. And yet, I’m not the apology superstar I’d really like to be. The entire ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the time for apologies, but I procrastinate until the hours before Yom Kippur begins. Then, in hurried calls to family members, or to those in earshot as I’m walking out the door on the way to services for Kol Nidre, I recite the same easy trite line that generalizes “anything I may have done to offend you or cause any pain.” My family reassures me that I have nothing to apologize for and then returns the same formula to me.
In our hearts, I know we mean well. It is inevitable in any relationship, especially our most intimate connections, that we cause emotional pain, and we feel bad about that. We don't want to hurt others, especially our loved ones, and we want to acknowledge that they, and their feelings, matter to us. So what gets in the way of having a meaningful conversation of apology?
Recognizing I have acted improperly is humbling; admitting it out loud feels scary and vulnerable. Or humiliating. One year, I apologized to someone who went nuclear on me because I did not align with his political talking points. And then, shockingly, I got nothing back — just smug silence. That’s why I hide behind the formula apology that everyone seems to use these days. It’s like we’re all in on the joke. We don’t want the other person to be embarrassed, but we don’t want to be embarrassed either.
Even if we would forgive the other person — without their even asking — I don't think the Rambam would approve, because it doesn’t go far enough.
When we avoid the discomfort of painful conversations and sweep resentment under the rug, we circumvent the self-analysis and awareness necessary for growth. Our trite little apologies may spark a moment of genuine goodwill, but failing to address or repair issues won't ignite change and the deeper connection that comes through conflict resolution.And while it’s painful, if we are willing to apologize to someone who should apologize back — and doesn’t — we are undertaking the hard spiritual work.
Real teshuva is not a transaction — it’s doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. That’s why the trite apology falls so short: it makes us feel like we did the right thing, when we have not.
For example, if I have hurt someone — and we both know it — this blanket apology doesn't work because I am not taking responsibility. In effect, I am saying that if you were hurt or offended by my behavior, then I'm sorry for your reaction, rather than the more courageous statement that I truly regret what I did, regardless of how it affected you.
In other words, a trite apology basically amounts to, “Sorry, not sorry.”
On the other hand, if I have hurt someone behind their back, and I never admit it, then my blanket apology is entirely disingenuous. Spiritually, I have dug the hole even deeper.
What if someone has hurt me unintentionally but is unaware of how I am feeling? If I am silent in the face of their generalized apology, I may be shortchanging that person's need for more sensitivity or awareness of their behavior. It's uncomfortable to share when our feelings get hurt, but playing it safe is a disservice to meaningful relationships.
So, what can we do? Instead of trying to muster big cathartic moments on demand, we should work on building our apology muscles all year. It's a good practice to do a nightly cheshbon (accounting) and reflect on how our day unfolded — what went right and what we wished we may have done differently.
Some couples are good at consistently expressing appreciation. But it is equally valuable to make it a deliberate practice to routinely verbalize regret for insensitivities — and the smaller and more subtle, the better. Starting small but consistently builds a foundation for success, refines our character, and shapes our relationships.
The word teshuva is often translated as repentance, but it literally means to turn. When we hurt someone, we turn away from them. Teshuva is turning back towards that person. When G-d separated Adam and Eve, He created beings to have a face-to-face and heart-to-heart connection. Fake or simplistic apologies keep us divided. The Rambam's formula is not an antiquated ideal but a method to help us grow with integrity, increase our relationship intelligence, and connect more deeply and authentically with G-d.
Become adept at giving and receiving apologies when it is not high stakes, so you can tackle the deeper and more painful issues when they arise. This is not the time of year to skim the surface, but to mine the spiritual treasures of self-discovery. Surrendering the ego prepares and elevates you to receive the highest spiritual benefits of this time of year. Elul is the time to fully embrace the process of teshuva, so that our sincere apologies and regrets can create a true opening to growth and connection.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
The Four Steps of Repentance, OU.org