Many would say the hardest part of Yom Kippur is fasting. For others the hardest part is being in a synagogue for so long or saying the Kaddish prayer when we remember recently departed loved ones. For some, it may be refraining from conjugal relations. For still others it may be the soul searching and the prayers atoning for our sins.
But for me the hardest part is the part I’ve never done before — reconciling with people I have hurt or wronged. This is the not the same as praying to God to be forgiven for the sins one has committed and hoping to be inscribed in the Book of Life. This is the obligation of every Jew to make amends and ask the person you wronged to forgive you, and to make things right between you.
Erich Segal proclaimed in his book “Love Story” that love means never having to say you’re sorry. Yom Kippur means the opposite — you have to say you’re sorry.
So I made a list. It was a little long, so I decided to start with the people closest to me. I was filled with trepidation. How would the people react? Would they hang up on me? Would they laugh out loud and say they’d never forgive me? Would they go into a rage or a fit of pique? Maybe it’s not wise to stir things up, I reconsidered. Would they delete my e-mail? Some of the people live far away so an e-mail or a phone call would have to be my method of communication. Some people could be approached in person, an even scarier thought.
I started with a person I used to be good friends with. She had been cool to me for over a year and I had no idea why, but I was afraid to find out. I gathered my courage and made the call.
Miraculously, she sounded glad to hear from me. I told her I was unhappy that I never heard from her anymore and asked if I had done something to offend her over the past year. She said no; it was just that distance had separated us since I moved to Florida.
That was it? I couldn’t believe that was all and that the rift was not intentional. I repeated that if there was anything I had done or said I was sorry. She insisted there was nothing. I was relieved. We made plans to reignite our friendship and get together in a few months. The act of atonement brought us back together.
Next I decided to approach my sister. We have been getting along, but there were years when we didn’t and I believe the trouble between us stemmed from childhood. I wrote her a contrite e-mail. I begged her to forgive me for being the big bad sister when we were children and sibling rivalry reared its ugly head. The letter brought tears to my eyes. It was long overdue.
My sister responded that she didn’t remember most of that since it was so long ago, but she did remember the times when I protected her as a child and did nice things for her as we grew older. I almost fell off my computer chair when I read it.
Now that’s an atonement that went well. It paves the way for us to become closer even though she didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing on my part. The risk of opening old wounds was worth the benefit of clearing the air and atoning.
I’m still working my way down my list and may not finish in time for the Day of Atonement. This is much harder than fasting. It is spiritually renewing though and, as most things are in the Jewish religion, it’s psychologically sound. To clear your conscience and make amends is a positive act leading to self-growth and self-esteem. It is difficult, but most worthwhile things are. JN
Bethanie Gorny is a freelance writer living in Florida. She is an essayist and the author of “Friday’s with Eva,” a memoir about her relationship with her mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor.