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Love Means Having to Say You're Sorry

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

One of the more memorably ridiculous lines in literature comes from a work that was popular in my childhood- Love Story– in which the author famously wrote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Raise your hand if you agree that you can successfully sustain long-term, loving relationships without ever apologizing?

         Which brings us to this weekend of “Selichot,” the moment in the High Holiday season when we kick our apologizing into high gear.  In Hebrew if you bump into someone you say, “Selicha,” excuse me.  On Yom Kippur, the refrain of our prayers is “Slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu,” translated as- forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.  Slicha, forgive us,  is the first stage of our apology- it includes a sense of remorse for what we have done wrong and the resolution to do better in the future.  M’chila, pardon us, means to wipe away, erase.  We are asking God, and, by extension, our loved ones, to restore our relationship as it was before the offense was committed.   Kappara is atonement, and might best be understood as the healing sense within when we have truly experienced forgiveness.

It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside this season for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness.

         More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides compiled Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology.  First is hakarat ha-chet- recognizing that we have done wrong.  We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, until we become aware of our errors. Denial is a strong temptation, so this first step is critical. This is followed by ha-ra-ta- a sense of regret.  It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior.  We excel at inventing excuses.  That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerting us to the fact that something is very wrong, must be treasured as a divine gift.

         The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season.  We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them.  This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future.  We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so.

         In 2006, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas published a book entitled, The Five Languages of Apology.  When I read it, I was struck by how their findings paralleled the wisdom of Maimonides

         The authors emphasize the fundamental significance of apologies in the restoration of relationships, for without a heartfelt apology in a language the offended person can understand, there is no mandate for forgiveness and we can all too quickly become estranged from those we care about most.

         Chapman and Thomas identify expression of regret as the first apology language, into which they incorporate Maimonides’ emphasis on verbal acknowledgement.  This is followed by acceptance of responsibility.  They add a third concept- the offer of restitution- “What can I do to make it right?”  Maimonides and our contemporary authors each include genuine repentance, the resolution not to repeat the same misdeed, as the fourth stage.  Chapman and Thomas offer an important fifth “language of apology”- a specific request for forgiveness.

         In no case does love mean never having to say you’re sorry!  As we love God- v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha- we ask for forgiveness.  As we love others- v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha- we ask for forgiveness.  And as God loves us- ohev amo Yisrael- it may be that God owes us an apology too. . . .

I’d like to conclude with these inspiring words of William Carlos Williams which you can find in your Shabbat brochure:


“What power has love but forgiveness?

In other words

by its intervention

what has been done

can be undone.

What good is it otherwise?”

         On this weekend of Selichot, we focus on our need to humbly ask- slach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu- forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.  And I know I speak on behalf of all of us on the bima when I ask that if there is anything any of us have done to hurt you in this year that is drawing to a close, please let us know so that we might begin the year 5774 with a clean slate.

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