When it comes to the art of asking for forgiveness, there’s nothing worse than a canned apology. You know the kind I’m talking about. A politician reading a few lines of carefully scripted empathy off a teleprompter or a business owner covering up for something that was “taken out of context.” The real problem with a fake “I’m sorry” is that even if it appeases those who were wronged, it carries no weight for the person apologizing. You see, when you’re to blame, the first person you must ask forgiveness from is yourself. Only then can you accept the feelings of guilt that help you to change.
As we read parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.
Chapter 5, verse 7 focuses in on the notion of confession. “He shall confess the wrong that he has done.” While this sounds straightforward enough, the “confession” is loaded with ritual and with meaning. The Hebrew word used for confession is “hitvadu.” This is in the reflexive form, which suggests that we must confess to ourselves the wrong that we have done. Confessing to ourselves, and even forgiving ourselves, is essential in moving forward and growing as humans.
Too often as parents, children, siblings, and teachers, we only halfway apologize for our mistakes. We publicly ask for forgiveness, but we never truly move forward by personally taking ownership of those wrongdoings. We give lip service to our wrongs, but don’t learn anything from them. The text this week reminds us that in order to properly confess, and to properly forgive, we must forgive and believe it first ourselves.
One of the essential tools of the rabbinical trade is a thick skin. This isn’t just because of the pastoral duties, which require a specific temperament. It’s also because as someone who must choose words carefully, I tend to be hardest on myself when my words fall short. Maybe I wasn’t able to respond to a question fast enough or I wasn’t able to be there physically when you needed me. I take these moments to heart and often hold onto them longer than I should. You may have even forgiven me before I have forgiven myself.
Here’s my promise to you: I will work on forgiving myself if you promise to work on forgiving yourself too. After all, that’s precisely the point of including the concept of hitvadu in this community-building portion of the Torah. Confession is just one building block of a fruitful relationship, and it’s our relationships that create the society we want.