How To Say “I’m Sorry” And Why: A Yom Kippur Story

I’m re-running a post from 2016, with some edits.


With thanks to for the image.
With thanks to for the image.

Prior to today’s post preparation, I knew this holiday mostly through its connection to “the Yom Kippur War” of 1973.

As a result, I set out to write (and learn) about Yom Kippur.

Most of us know that Yom Kippur is the highest of all the Jewish holidays.  But, unless you’re Jewish, I’ll bet you didn’t know that Yom Kippur comes at the end of the 10 “days of awe” — a period of introspection and repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — and is preceded by a 25-hour fast.

Yom Kippur begins at sundown the night before with the chanting of the Kol Nidre, which asks God to relieve them of promises made. There is a YouTube video of this hauntingly beautiful melody at the end of this post which I encourage you to listen to while reading.

Historically, these were promises made in the early centuries of Christendom, when Jews were forced to convert. That’s how seriously Jews take their vows: only God can relieve them of that obligation.

From those basics of the Yom Kippur holiday, I read about atonement, which moved me to look into the role of repentance in the world’s major religions:  Muslims have their Naurez, Christians their Easter.

Repentance seems fundamental to who we are as social beings. We make mistakes, we seek forgiveness, we yearn for reconciliation.

And, as I examined repentance and its many synonyms — apology, remorse, regret, confession, contrition, penitence — I found myself dissecting the concept of an apology, the act of repentance.

What makes one apology work, while another one doesn’t? What, exactly, is the power an apology holds? What does it take to truly repent?

I came to see repentance as the means to heal a fractured relationship.

Whether that relationship is with ourselves, our God, our partner, our parent, our child, our neighbor, our community, or our country, I’m holding to the notion that the structure of the ensuing apology will be the same.

I chose the Identify, Own, and Honor three-step model from Melody Beattie, which I use when teaching about emotions.  The model works just fine in understanding apologies too.

1. Identify

An apology begins with the acknowledgment that something was done that caused injury.  What, exactly, did I do wrong? What is it I’m admitting to?  What is the injury? 

In short: name it.

Whether it’s an emotional injury (I embarrassed you; I broke your heart), a financial injury (I broke your window; I embezzled from your company),  a physical one (I ran over your child’s bike), or some other type, the specific injury needs to be named and acknowledged. We want to make sure both sides are on the same page.

2. Own

This is the moment when we admit (to ourselves first), that we erred; we accept the part we played in creating the injury. Sometimes this is obvious and easy to do. But often, this is difficult.

I came across this quote from the Dalai Lama, which, as quotes from the Dalai Lama tend to do, spoke eloquently on just this point:


“When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn
both peace and joy.”

I did it.  And I am sorry. I regret. 

Sometimes the regret is so great, we grieve the loss of who we thought we were. Sometimes it’s a simpler matter of accepting that we made a mistake.  Whichever, this step requires courage.

We become vulnerable when we admit our faults, our weaknesses, our  mistakes. And that can be scary. But it is in this very vulnerability that we make the connection needed to heal, to reconcile.

How easy it can be to deflect that vulnerability, to blame someone else, to divert attention elsewhere, away from ourselves. It is in that necessary humility that we acknowledge our humanity.

3. Honor

What can you do to make it right? To heal the rift; right the wrong? This is the reparation part, the “evening up” stage. This is the time to show you have changed, the time to walk the talk, to assure it won’t happen again.

This is not the time for excuses; it is the time for explanation. A good apology requires an explanation that puts the injury into a broader context. It is only through understanding this broader picture that the injured party can begin to believe it will not happen again.

I didn’t know. I forgot. I was not paying attention. I was an insensitive brute. I was greedy; I was wrong. I was ill.

We started with the premise that an apology, at its core, is about healing a fractured relationship.  But some relationships aren’t going to mend.  Sometimes what it would take to make amends is more than you are willing or able to do.

Can you have a genuine apology without reparation, without repair? Replacing the broken window or paying someone’s medical deductible is simple enough. What about a broken heart, an injured pride, a broken promise?

What about a difference of opinion, the uncovering of a contrasting value? How does one go about making reparations for an intangible injury? How much is one willing to change to please the other?

One thing for certain, however:  It takes courage to truly repent,  even privately. To fully acknowledge and accept that we are fallible, we make mistakes, we screw up. And we apologize.

I am grateful that the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur reminded me.

As I reworked this post from a few years ago, I listened to this haunting melody of the Kol Nidre, recited by Cantor Angela Buchdahl. I play it here for you.



How about you? What makes apologizing possible?

15 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I’m listening to the cantor as I type this, such a sonorous voice!

    What a thorough investigation of such a important topic: Among my friends, only Merril Smith would have experienced this ritual in her tradition.

    In my opinion, repentance and forgiveness are essential to spiritual and mental health. As you know, these are strong themes in my memoir. Just last evening, I had to apologize to my husband for taking a walk when he thought we were going to finish a conversation, a misunderstanding.

    For me, the need to clear the air and the desire to restore a broken relationship make apology possible.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Meeting Readers: The Joys of a Book TourMy Profile

    • Merril D Smith
      | Reply

      Marian–I have to correct you. I did not grow up in a religious family. I don’t think we ever discussed what Yom Kippur meant, and we did not belong to a synagogue. But I do agree with what you said about apologies and forgiveness. I won’t be fasting today, as I actually have to finish some work, but I will be mindful and take some time to consider the ideas that Janet has thoughtfully explored here.
      Merril D Smith recently posted…The Night PassesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      That desire to restore a broken relationship, yes indeed. I think that’s the key. Nice example there, with Cliff. Thanks, Marian.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How To Say “I’m Sorry” And Why: A Yom Kippur StoryMy Profile

  2. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Also–I agree that cantor has a beautiful voice!

  3. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I have friends who look forward to Yom Kippur each year. From them I’ve learned a little about it and how meaningful it can be. I think atonement + forgiveness can be difficult concepts to wrap your brain around, but are also the basis for an emotionally healthy life. Therefore while this holiday is not part of my particular religion’s list of holidays, I find myself joining into Yom Kippur in my own way. It seems so in keeping with fall, truth be told.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Thoughts On The Differences Between A Friend & A FollowerMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I love how you connected this holiday to autumn. I’d love to hear more. Hunkering down? Shoring up? It is attached to the Jewish New Year, as is the Muslim celebration of Naurez attached to their New Year. But theirs is in the spring, as is the Christian Easter. I wonder if this first began in the southern hemisphere? It was a long time ago. You’ve got me thinking here, Ally. Thanks. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…How To Say “I’m Sorry” And Why: A Yom Kippur StoryMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I never fail to learn from your posts; this post is no exception. Thank you so much for this wonderful reminder.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…As Above, So BelowMy Profile

  5. Joan
    | Reply

    Regardless of religion, this is a very important and timely post, especially in view of what we and our country are doing to the Kurds in Syria. Thank you, Janet

  6. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Thank you Joan. This is a most alarming time, more so (to me) than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finding common ground and ways to reconnect truly seems more important than ever before. We must learn to talk to “those others.” The Kurdish situation is Putin’s playbook and it could never have gotten this far, I think, if our country were not so terribly polarized.

    Don’t forget to breathe. And drink tea. 🙂
    Janet Givens recently posted…How To Say “I’m Sorry” And Why: A Yom Kippur StoryMy Profile

  7. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    Thought-provoking post, Janet. I think “owning” the wrong committed is key. A person can apologize, but the apology is empty if the person doesn’t truly own up to what they said, did, or didn’t say or do that hurt someone else. I like all three points you made. Many times I’m guilty of thinking the words, “I’m sorry” are sufficient and I don’t follow up with any form of reparation.

  8. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    It is so easy to say sorry…To mean it is such a different matter…Your post covers this beautifully and thoughfully, Janet. It was only a few weeks ago that we had a problem with our grandson and his ability to let sorry just roll of his tongue at any given time. After quite unusual episode from him it took a few days and tears for us both to be frank and open and for him to realise how his actions impacted upon us and how sad we felt…All is now resolved and I am sure will not be repeated it was a big learning curve for him and myself but revealing both our feelings to each other was cathargic…A well written post
    Carol Taylor recently posted…Smorgasbord Health Column – The Obesity epidemic – Part Four– Finding a point to intervene in the life cycle – 7 – 14 healthy diet for brain function and hormonesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      thanks for adding your story here, Carol. Yes, I too have met people for whom “I’m sorry” seems a rather quick fix instead of a heartfelt mending of the rift. I’m so glad you were able to work this through with your grandson; a great opportunity for all concerned. That “revealing of feelings” as you mentioned isn’t easy. THanks again.

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