August 21, 2020/1 Elul 5780
Elul is the month to begin practicing teshuvah, repentance for misdeeds. We know that there are two kinds of misdeeds, and thus two directions for our teshuvah. For sins we have committed against no human but against our religion, our morality, our physical environment, and ourselves we must ask God for forgiveness. For sins we have committed against our fellow humans, we must make amends with those individuals we have wronged.
I have been of the opinion that asking another person for forgiveness was about making things up to them. They were the wronged party and therefore only they know how to make restitution. Or perhaps the need to address the person you have wronged is meant to be punitive: It is much harder to face the person you have wronged, remind them of the wrong, and then ask forgiveness. S.Y. Agnon offers a third option. In his book Days of Awe, he tells a story in the name of Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked that man, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.” The other said to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you; do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.”
Perhaps the reason that we must apologize directly to those we have wronged is that by making ourselves vulnerable in front of them and admitting our guilt, we can both find a new path out of the woods together.