09/03/2013 02:53 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Yom Kippur, Divorce, and Three Little Words: I Am Sorry

As the summer slowly dwindles to its inevitable end, and children begrudgingly return to schools, Jewish families all across the world begin to prepare for their highest of holy days, Rosh Hashana (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Since I was a little girl growing up in a suburb just outside of Philadelphia, these two back-to-back holidays held special meaning for me. Aside from the new clothes for shul (synagogue), special dinners hosted in the dining room, and visits with family and friends, this was the single time of the year, when I could start all over with a fresh, clean slate. The quintessential "do-over," when a heartfelt apology would wipe away all transgressions of the prior year, and allow me to start anew. Could it be that simple? How do these three little words, "I -- am -- sorry" offer so much opportunity for new beginnings?

The chorus lyrics of Sir Elton John's "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word," lyrics read,

It's sad, it's so sad
It's a sad, sad situation
And it's getting more and more absurd
It's sad, so sad
Why can't we talk it over
Always seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

Is "sorry" really the hardest word to utter? Are the mere words enough, or, do we need to couple the words with meaningful intent and sincerity? On Yom Kippur, we are instructed to seek atonement from those we have wronged... those who we have intentionally or unintentionally transgressed... so that we are assured a blessing in the Book of Life. We utter the words of "Al Cheyt," chanting and asking God for forgiveness for various sins which we have committed, knowingly or unknowingly. For whom are we asking forgiveness? For ourselves? For others? In Yom Kippur: Forgiveness is Awesome, Eitan Press wrote, "Forgiveness is taking the wall down that we have put in front of our heart." Press likens forgiveness to setting ourselves free, and hoping for the same for those we have hurt. So perhaps, "I am sorry" is meant to allow both parties to start anew?

It is stunning to observe the difficulty with which so many of us struggle with the simple apology. As a family law mediator, I am privy to many once-intimate-but-now-estranged couples struggling just to have a civil conversation with each other. The struggle is palpable, as every word is parsed, every movement criticized, and every expression over-analyzed. The struggle to interact is more exhausting than the actual underlying dispute. In order to neutralize the atmosphere, it is sometimes helpful to level the playing field with a generalized basic apology; just a simple acknowledgement of sorrow that the parties find themselves in the situation before them. According to Rabbi Bradd Boxman of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Florida the Talmud tells us that "For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; But for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another." Rabbi Boxman teaches his congregants that the Hebrew term for forgiveness is "T'shuvah," meaning that in order to achieve forgiveness in the true sense of the word, we need to return... to be re-aligned... with God, with our families and community. T'shuvah is accomplished in six steps: First, we must admit that we have committed a sin or transgression. Second, we must acknowledge the sin or transgression to the person upon whom it was committed. Third, we must demonstrate that we are truly remorseful for our actions. Fourth, there must be an action we take to demonstrate the sincerity of our remorse. Fifth, once steps one through four are completed, only then may we ask God for forgiveness and to clean the slate for the new year. And finally, sixth, when we find ourselves in the same situation again, and we don't repeat the original sin or transgression, only then have we truly completed T'shuvah, and have returned to the equilibrium that existed prior to our misdeeds.

So, how do we apologize? What constitutes an authentic apology? After a heated exchange with your spouse, you send the following text message: "I just wanted to let you know that I sincerely regret fighting in front of our kids, and am sorry that you felt intimidated." Do you regret the fight itself, or, are you taking ownership of fault? Are you apologizing for intimidating your spouse, or, are you simply acknowledging that your spouse felt intimidated? Sometimes what looks like an apology is nothing more than a restatement of fact. A true apology requires:

(1) Recognition. There should be an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing.
(2) Selflessness. It should be more than an act of words, and given from the heart and soul;
(3) Specificity. The receiver should understand the nature and sincerity of the apology; and
(4) Act. It should be accompanied with an action, such as a modified behavior or restitution.

"I am sorry" alters the way we interact with someone. It diffuses tension and makes available opportunity for better communication. "I am sorry" acknowledges a hurt, regardless of fault or intent. Given genuinely and received graciously, "I am sorry" is the pathway for new beginnings.

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