Learning How to Say “Sorry”

Every week, the Union for Reform Judaism publishes a commentary on the weekly Torah portion on their website. Rabbi Skloot is writing the URJ’s d’var Torah for the Book of Numbers, which we will share with you every Friday, here, on this blog. Shabbat shalom!

Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89

“It’s not my fault!”

We’ve all said it. It’s rarely easy to accept responsibility for the mistakes we make or damage we cause. Sometimes we know instantly we’ve done something wrong; sometimes it takes time for us to realize the extent of our mistake. But even after that realization, it’s always painful to say, “I’m sorry.”

A beloved Jewish children’s story entitled, The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story, makes this point inventively. The tale describes God commanding a giant bird to search the world for the “hardest word” a person can say. In a first attempt, the bird proposes “Goodnight” — since no child likes going to bed. God demurs. Next, the bird suggests, “Spaghetti.” Cute but no dice. Only later, after many unsuccessful guesses, the bird reflects on his own life, looks into his own heart, and realizes that the hardest word must be (spoiler alert) “Sorry” (Jacqueline Jules, Kar-Ben, 2001).

The story rings true as much for us as for the grade-school set: “Sorry” is indeed one of the hardest words we can utter. And yet, our ability to say it, our ability to accept and admit guilt when we’re in the wrong is, according to Jewish tradition, at the heart of what makes for a just society.

Our Torah reading this week, Parashat Naso, highlights this idea with the following injunction:

When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong they have done. They shall make restitution in the principle amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged. (Numbers 5:6-7)

Our commentators recognized that this injunction was very similar to one enumerated several chapters earlier, in the Book of Leviticus (5:20-24). What distinguishes the statement in our parashah from what proceeded it?

According to Rashi, one differentiating feature can be found in the words “they shall confess the wrong they have done,” which do not appear in Leviticus (Rashi on Numbers 5:6). Put another way, Rashi observes that according to our parashah, repentance cannot be effectuated without a proper confession of wrongdoing.

Interestingly, requiring confession from the guilty seems to have been one of Rashi’s particular concerns. Elsewhere, in his Talmud commentary, Rashi writes that a person cannot achieve true repentance without admitting guilt: “One does not offer compensation or a sin sacrifice without making confession” (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 108b, s.v. m’shalem keren).

Thus, in cases of wrongdoing, Rashi and our parashah teach, that justice can only be achieved and amends can only be made when a guilty party (a) publicly admits guilt and (b) makes adequate restitution. It’s a two-step solution — two steps that are especially relevant for us today.

In recent years, Americans have watched over and again as corporations accused of malfeasance and negligence have paid large sums to settle lawsuits without admitting guilt. Indeed, if we individuals find it difficult to admit our mistakes, corporations seem to find it even harder. We might say, tongue-in-cheek, they are “too big to confess.”

Corporations’ refusal to admit wrongdoing — and our government’s acceptance of this practice — creates the impression that our society is willing to tolerate nefarious and negligent behavior — in exchange for an adequate amount cash. By allowing these “cop-out settlements,” as they are known, our country fails to live up to its sacred aspiration, “Justice for all.” Rashi’s words ring out to us from the pages of his commentaries condemning this practice, “One does not offer compensation or a sin sacrifice without making confession.”

Confession, admitting guilt, saying sorry, are sacred acts. They may be difficult but they make social reconciliation and repair possible. In his Jewish law code, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes expansively about the concept of confession, saying that regardless of the transgression committed, to confess it publicly and accurately is considered especially praiseworthy. And without confession, Maimonides like Rashi tells us, full repentance cannot be achieved (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:5).

At the end of The Hardest Word, the giant bird reflects on recent events and remembers when he, accidentally, fell from the sky and destroyed a vegetable garden beside a synagogue. He determines that he will return to the scene of the crime bearing a basket of fruits and vegetables from his own garden because, “It was time to say the hardest word.”

It’s time for all of us, and especially our country’s largest corporations, to learn how to say the hardest word too.

Rabbi Skloot’s commentary originally appeared on ReformJudaism.org.