This is Growing Faith, a column about parenting and faith coauthored by Saadia Faruqi and Shoshana Kordova.
Shoshana: You can pray from morning to night on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, you can beat your chest and listen to the shofar and pledge to do better, and that may be good enough for the kinds of things God might get upset about. But the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that if you want to repent for doing something wrong to another person, it’s not enough to ask God; you’ve got to go to the people you harmed and ask them for forgiveness directly.
The High Holy Days and the preceding month constitute the height of the Jewish repentance season, the traditional time for the soul-searching and self-reflection known in Hebrew as heshbon nefesh : the arithmetic of the soul. Yet this time of year, I find myself no less likely to announce one more time (though surely my children must know this by now) We don’t hit people even if we want them to stop singing! and No calling names! and Bite food, not people!
Perhaps it’s fortunate, then, that we often don’t have to go far to apologize to the folks we tend to injure most.
Saadia: I like this idea that you can’t seek God’s forgiveness until you’ve sought His creation’s forgiveness. In fact, Islam teaches a similar concept, that God forgives sins against Himself, but He doesn’t forgive sins against a human being until that person forgives you.
When I was a child I thought that was fun, because whenever a sibling did something I deemed unforgivable, I’d simply shake my head and say, “Uh-uh, I don’t forgive you, so God won’t forgive you, either.” Seeing the frustration in the perpetrator’s eyes made that statement all the more powerful. Of course, in adulthood, the concept is more worrying.
I find the art of seeking forgiveness from an actual person so difficult. Facing someone you know you’ve wronged, looking them in the eye, and saying, “I was wrong, will you please forgive me?” takes a special sort of courage. In my mind, I’m always imagining the other person shaking his head gleefully and answering, “Uh-uh, I don’t forgive you, so God won’t forgive you, either!”
Shoshana: Yeah, my children often seem to think their siblings are doing something unforgivable. (After all, who could truly forgive a sibling for sitting on the very spot on the couch they had coveted?)
All the same, “I’m sorry, are you okay?”—the phrase we use in our home after causing harm, both apology and damage assessment—gets trotted out fairly frequently, if not at quite the same volume as METUMTEMET and ME’ATZBENET, the Hebrew slings with which my daughters denounce each other as annoying idiots.
But it wasn’t always that way. When my oldest, now ten, was small and first beginning to talk, I couldn’t envision taking my daughter by the hand and walking her over to a child whose toy she had just grabbed so she could sputter out a word she could barely understand. I thought it would be pointless.
Maimonides says true penitents are those who resist committing the same sin even when they find themselves in the same situation. Of course a young child isn’t considered to have sinned in any meaningful sense, but I was bothered by the lesson I thought I would be imparting, intentionally or not. Once she did get concepts like “mine” and “yours” and “sorry,” wouldn’t she be learning that all you have to do to show contrition is say a couple of magic words you don’t mean, and then commit the same offense when the next shiny new toy catches your eye? I had no doubt that my daughter was not going to start loving her neighbor as herself by virtue of a coerced, halfhearted-at-best “sorry.”
As I had more kids, though (another daughter and another and another), I realized they were going to need guidance to be able to think about anyone other than themselves. On its own, an immediate “I’m sorry” still felt forced to me, and too focused on the perpetrator’s “I.” So we’ve added a “you” component, to help focus my kids’ thoughts, however briefly, on how their sibling feels. There’s also no time limit on apologies—in our house, the child who caused injury needs to say “I’m sorry, are you okay?” or, better yet, explain what she’s sorry for, but it doesn’t have to be right away, when she’s still feeling angry. Better a delayed but well-intentioned apology from a calm child, I figure, than a quick but resentful one from a seething child.
There are few things more heartwarming than accidentally overhearing one of your children say to another, completely unprompted and hours after the most recent tempest: “I’m sorry, are you okay?”
Saadia: We’ve also played around with the process related to forgiveness, as we try to find the right fit. If one child says I’m sorry, the other one has to forgive.
Sometimes my daughter complains she doesn’t want to forgive her brother for always teasing her and pulling her hair. I understand completely. What message am I giving my son if he thinks he can get away with repeated negative behavior simply by issuing an empty apology?
So I tweaked the plan: You get to say sorry, and your sibling has to respond with “I accept your apology,” but he or she can still feel hurt or angry and express these feelings in a constructive manner. Hopefully, this way, both children can feel that they’ve had their day in God’s court.
I’ve realized, though, that children look at apologies and repentance differently than adults do. For my kids, at least, the result of their action determines whether or not they apologize, and how sincere their words are. The other day, my son tossed a prayer rug at his sister, which is standard behavior most days. This time she didn’t dodge, and the rug hit her eye. She screamed, and my son said “sorry” in his best voice, over and over. I found this ridiculous, because his argument was that he didn’t mean to hit her—yes, he did mean to toss the rug, but he was apologizing for the unexpected pain it caused, not the act itself. (Sigh.)
As for myself, I wish everyone I ever apologized to would just accept the words and get on with it. For Muslims, there isn’t any day of seeking forgiveness or subsequent redemption like the Jewish High Holy Days, though many Muslims believe that if they fast during Ramadan or perform the Hajj all their sins will be forgiven. I can’t do this one day of the year; for me, it’s a year-long, sometimes a lifelong, process. There are still people I need to tell I’m sorry , and there is still hurt from decades ago that hasn’t healed.
But I keep returning to that simple concept that God will not forgive until the person you have wronged forgives. A thousand Hajjes aren’t equal to this idea, this powerful statement that is a mixture of hope, inspiration and, somehow, a strange sense of loss. God is sometimes easier to please than our fellow humans.