Each time there is silence around me, I tend to ask (myself, if I'm by myself, and others, if there is a company present) "What did I do wrong?" The silence that descends upon Israel on Yom Kippur may cause those less guilt-ridden than myself, and those (like myself) who do not mortify their body and soul on the Day of Atonement, to hum Edith Piaf's famous song "Non, je ne regrette rien." Others, not versed in French chansons, may opt for Frank Sinatra's way: "Regrets I've had a few, but then, again, too few to mention."
She does not regret a thing, and he but a few, but Yom Kippur is not only about regret. It is mainly about remorse. We regret something we have done, but had it all happened again, we would probably have done the same thing. Whereas when we feel or seek to express feelings of remorse - we imply that not only are we truly sorry for what we have done, but had we the ability to turn the clock back, we would have behaved differently.
I remember an evening at the Royal Court Upstairs, in 1971, with young actors improvising skits and monologues. One of them took the stage, apparently prepared to launch a speech. His first sentence was: "It is better to sleep with regret, than to wake up with remorse." The laughs and applause he got for that opener prompted him to end his monologue right there.
Saying "I'm sorry" makes one feel better, of course, as there is nothing like pangs of conscience to keep it clean. But as long as the other side does not acknowledge that it has accepted the proffered apologies, one never knows if it was worth one's while to prostrate oneself thus. And even if the other side does express acknowledgment, how are we to know if he or she meant it?
For instance, when the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 14) keep grumbling about their fate and express desire to be back in good old Egypt, God decides yet again (this is his knee-jerk response; he's not very good at taking criticism) to "smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them." Moses intercedes and claims that this may cause harm to God's reputation in Egyptian eyes. God accepts this reasoning and says: "I have pardoned according to thy word." We know that He indeed pardoned the people, because He did not smite them, but did He really mean it or just do it because Moses had a point?
The Yom Kippur prayer book takes into account this inherent ambiguity in the expression of remorse and regret. The whole point of "Tefillah Zaka" - the long confessional prayer that is supposed to be recited "with awe" just before "Kol Nidre" - is reciprocity: "Just as I forgive everyone, so should you [God] grant me favor in the eyes of all men that they should completely forgive me." That is why anyone who recites this prayer says, quite clearly: "I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has sinned against me ... except for money which I can claim in a court of law and except for someone who sins against me saying, 'I will sin against him and he will forgive me.'"
When words are words
Remorse is very nice indeed, but words are just words, and since the Phoenicians invented the concept of money, there have been better ways of saying "I'm sorry."
Remorse, very much like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, and like the tango which takes two to perform, such is the "I'm sorry" ritual. Incidentally, whoever coined the phrase (one of the 100 most famous ones in the history of film) "Love means never having to say 'I'm sorry'" either was never in love, or never had to say "I'm sorry."
Which brings me to the most memorable Yom Kippur of my life, the one in October 1973, but not for the reasons you may think. On that day, about noon, I went with the love of my life to the Tel Aviv seashore, a practice that is incidentally not forbidden by Jewish law on that holy day. Not that we cared about those things, as we carried with us a notebook and pen to make the list of prospective guests at our forthcoming wedding, scheduled to take place on January 6, 1974. The date was suggested by me, because you have to fix one, and Sherlock Holmes' birthday looked to me as good a day as any.
Shortly before 2 P.M. we finished filling up the notebook and even before starting to argue who's in and who's out, we were on our way home, remarking to each other that there was a surprising number of cars on the move for Yom Kippur. When we got home we understood why, and I went to join my military unit (nothing heroic, Army Radio, which from that moment on, went on air around the clock and has been broadcasting 24/7 ever since).
Others of lesser - or greater - faith could have interpreted those events as being an omen, apart from being God's punishment of the latter-day Israelites for their collective transgressions. But we did not take it personally. On the contrary: After hearing then chief of staff General Elazar at a press conference, vowing that "We shall break their bones," we decided there and then that since the world as we knew it was coming to an end anyway, we should not wait until January 6th.
We thus got married in the presence of a very small and select group of friends and relatives, in my future wife's small apartment, on November 11th - the day the so-called "101st kilometer" accord was signed, and exactly 55 years after World War I ended - two auspicious dates for the start of a union. The rabbi, Yehuda Ansbacher, noticing a reproduction of Van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Marriage" on the wall, said dryly: "Well, this is also a huppah - but at a competing establishment."
I'm telling you all this not because I regret anything; anyway, you'll never know if I mean it or not. Rather I'm doing it because Yom Kippur means many things to me besides the matters between man, his fellowmen and God. And also because with time I learned that love indeed means that you are willing to say you are sorry, and to mean it. And that by saying so, you do make a big difference - maybe all the difference - in your small world.
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