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On Apologies

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Sermon by Rabbi Denise L. Eger Kol Nidre 5780  On Apologies

 
It’s never too late to apologize. To say I am sorry.
It may take many years to do so. And it may take many years for us to receive an apology for an insult, or wrong done to us.
 
Here’s a story about just that. It appeared in the Oregonian, Portland’s newspaper and tonight I share it with you in hopes that it inspires you to think about apologies, forgiveness and hope.
 
Larry Israelson  walked out on his favorite teacher's class with no explanation. Decades later, Larry mailed Mr. Atteberry a letter that he hoped would change everything.
When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor—he was, after all, a kid. But in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize. But the teacher seemed to have vanished. Over the decades, the boy—Larry Israelson, now a man—occasionally turned to the Internet, typing the teacher’s name into search boxes. He never found anything. But he never quit looking. Last year—by now nearly 39 years after the event happened—he got a hit.
Stunned, he started reading a story by Journalist Tom Hallman. He had written in the Oregonian about a program that helps at-risk kids. He studied an accompanying photograph and recognized his teacher, who was a volunteer. He then e-mailed the journalist, Tom Hallman;
You published an item involving retired teacher James Atteberry. Mr. Atteberry was a teacher of mine in the early ’70s, and I wish to apologize to him for a regrettable incident that occurred when I was his student. Would you be willing to serve as an intermediary and deliver a message on my behalf
Hallman contacted Atteberry. Intrigued, the teacher told the journalist to respond to this former student and see what happened. Shortly thereafter, the journalist, received an overnight package containing a sealed envelope, which he then forwarded to Atteberry, the teacher:
Hallman wrote: When I mentioned this letter to people, they all reacted in the same way: They each had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.
I realized why Israelson was so intent on finding Atteberry. It was all about getting a second chance.
As James Atteberry read the letter, he was brought back to 1973, when he was a middle school history and composition teacher in Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles. He was 37, got great reviews, and was well liked. He was also a gay man.
“If a teacher was found to be gay, his contract would not be renewed,” Atteberry said. “Gay teachers kept their mouths shut. People of this era might not understand it. But it was an intense time. An art teacher in the school made a stupid mistake, and that was the end of his career. I never talked about my life.” said Atteberry.
And yes, he told Tom Hallman, that he remembered Larry Israelson.
Here is what Israelson wrote to his former teacher:
 I am truly sorry for asking to be transferred out of your seventh grade social studies class during the 1972–73 school year. I don’t have many memories from school, but at the top of one of my assignments you wrote “You will go far in life. Your command of the English language is exceptional.” Looking back on my younger self, I am certain that I reveled in being one of the teacher’s pets. As comfortable as I was in a classroom, however, the boy’s locker room was something else entirely. Now I am six feet five inches and I played water polo in high school and in college.
“But when I was 12,” he said, “I was a scrawny little kid who was into books. A lot of the athletic guys loved to tease those of us who were weak. You know what it is to feel powerless?”
Hallman writes: Some students suspected Atteberry was gay. A boy in class asked Atteberry what he thought about a proposed law banning gay teachers. This was the days of the Briggs Initiative.    When Atteberry asked the boy why he’d posed the question, the student said his father had specifically told him to ask Atteberry. The teacher chose his words carefully.
Israelson was one of his best students. Bright and articulate, he submitted essays that Atteberry thought were remarkably good. “I would praise Larry in class,” Atteberry said. “That was his downfall.”  In the locker room, boys began picking on Israelson.
“They started saying ‘Larry’ and then ‘fairy’ and rhyming it with ‘Atteberry,’” Israelson recalled.
When he pleaded with them to stop, he was challenged to a fight.
“I took a couple of hard punches,” he said. “I gave up.” Said Larry.
The teasing intensified, with the taunts becoming more sexually explicit and graphic. Israelson told no one. One day, when he could no longer stand it, he showed up at the principal’s office and said he needed to leave Tayberry’s class. The principal couldn’t understand why, but he eventually signed a transfer slip and handed it to Israelson. The student walked into Atteberry’s classroom, interrupted the lesson, and handed Atteberry the slip. Without a word, Israelson gathered his books and walked out the door.
“There was no goodbye, no explanation,” Israelson said. “I just disappeared. I never talked to Mr. Atteberry again.
Israelson had been writing an imaginary letter to Atteberry for over 30 years. But now he struggled to find the right words. He was “truly sorry” for asking to be transferred, he wrote. “I know my age was a mitigating factor, but when I replayed this incident in my adult head, it shamed me.”
He sealed the envelope and sent it to me to be forwarded to Atteberry. He expected nothing more. He had done what he had set out to do, and now it was over.
When Atteberry read the letter,  he, too, remembered what it had been like to be a boy. Like Israelson, he had been bullied. Two athletes had grabbed him when he was walking home, forced him to pull down his pants, and whipped him with a belt. Shamed, he told no one, the matter made worse when the athletes tormented him by demanding each day that he turn over his lunch money to them.
In a strange way, this letter allowed Atteberry to come to terms with his own past. He was not alone.
Atteberry had always wondered why Israelson had left his class. Was it something he did or said to this student? Now he knew.
He set the letter aside, went to his computer, and typed Israelson’s name into a search box. He found the address and a telephone number.
One thousand miles away, a phone rang. A man answered.
“Larry,” a voice on the other end said, “this is your teacher.”
Recently James Atteberry and Larry Israelson met after 40 years. The former teacher arrived early at the hotel lounge. He sat peering at everyone to see if he could recognize his old student. Then he spotted a tall man ambling toward him. “What happened to that little guy?” he asked, smiling.
“He grew up,” said Larry Israelson.
After a long hug and some catching up, Atteberry jumped into the subject that had brought them together in July— “I was puzzled why you left the class. I knew it wasn’t because you were rotten,” Atteberry said with a laugh. “It was survival. In junior high, it is survival of the fittest.”
Their story was published by Tom Hallman in the Oregonian, and then covered by NPR, Reader’s Digest and many other outlets. 
Both men voiced surprise over the attention the article had received—the calls, letters, and e-mails sent their way from around the world.
“The takeaway is optimism,” reasoned Israelson. “There are universal themes of an apology sought and forgiveness granted.”
At the end of their reunion—which included lunch with Israelson’s wife, Conny—Israelson accepted an invitation to visit Atteberry and his partner next year.[i]
It took nearly 40 years for an apology to made and for an apology and forgiveness to be accepted. 
 
That’s a lifetime for some.
 
But you shouldn’t wait a lifetime. Not your lifetime or those who you have insulted or hurt.
 
There is no time like the present.
 
On this Kol Nidre night we are reminded that the process of teshuvah is exactly  about this idea of apologies to made and accepted.  Of forgiveness granted.
Our tradition calls us to examine our own behaviors and to make amends at this season.
In the Shulchan Oruch Oruch Chayim 606:1 It states:
Transgressions between people are not subject to atonement on Yom Kippur unless the offender appeases the offended party. Even if one aggrieved another with words alone, this appeasement is necessary. If one cannot effect appeasement at first, one must return a second and a third time, taking along three people. If the offended party will not be appeased after three visits, one may desist.
 
In other words, we are required to try to make an apology. It is part of recognizing our responsibility for the harm we have caused. And for the sin we committed.   
 
It might not all work out as well as it did between Larry and his teacher Mr. Atteberry.  Because there is also an art and science of how to apologize
 
According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, who wrote an important book called On Apology:
“A good apology is deeply healing while an absent or bad one can compromise and even end a relationship.”[ii]
There are actually rules to help us know a good apology from a bad one.  According to Lerner.
 
“I’m sorry” won’t cut it if it’s vague, insincere, blame-reversing, or a quick way out of a difficult conversation. (im sorry) And obviously an apology is empty if you keep repeating the very behaviors you’re apologizing for.” [iii]
 
Lerner echoes Jewish tradition here.  Teshuvah is only complete if you don’t repeat the behavior that got you in trouble in the first place.  And Judaism encourages you to apologize by taking responsibility for your actions
 
According to Maimonides the great Rambam, there are 4 steps to a good apology and to proper teshuvah:   (4 steps)
 
  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).
 
Lerner reminds us: Don’t add the dreaded “but “or worse the “if” to an apology. Like “ I’m sorry I forget your birthday, but I was stressed out with work” or " I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”,  These will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.[iv]
Or even worse yet, is bringing up their transgression… I am sorry but you also offended me at the meeting.
 
Don’t reverse blame as part of your apology I am sorry, I didn’t know this was so such a sensitive issue for you.
 
When you apologize according to Lerner do so sincerely.  Don’t keep score. Acknowledge the hurt you have caused. Listen to the harmed party express their pain. And make reparations as needed.  This is the only way to begin to restore trust in a relationship.
 
And if it the violation, was really egregious, a deep betrayal, injury or insult then Lerner teaches us that “High-stakes situations calls for an apology that’s a long distance run—where we open our heart and listen to the feelings of the hurt part on more than one occasion.” [v] It may take several apologies to authenticate our remorse and to hear and hold the pain we have caused. 
 
Our Jewish way demands this of us as well. 
The apologizers must continue to come to the person to appease him:
The Mishneh Torah, Rambam states:
If his fellow doesn't want to forgive him, he brings a group of three of his friends and they approach him and request [forgiveness] from him; if he [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should bring a second and third [group]. If he [still] doesn't want [to forgive him], he may leave him, and the one who refuses to forgive is the sinner. But if [the wronged party] was his teacher, he should go and come to him for forgiveness even a thousand times until he does forgive him.
 
We have to keep trying. At least three times in our tradition to apologize sincerely and it also means that the one who was harmed must share their hurt with the individual.
 
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting nor in Jewish tradition does it mean that everything will go back to the way it was. It can’t. Some relationships will be changed forever.  But the burdens of the sin, and the anger of the wronged can be diminished. 
 
Our Christian neighbors and friends have a different approach to forgiveness. They turn the other cheek.  We Jews demand turning our own lives around so we do not commit the error again.  That is teshuvah.
 
 So on this holiest night, of the holiest day in our Jewish year. Take some time to assess. Who have you wronged? Who should you be apologizing to? Who did you apologize to insincerely and need to do so again? Who do you need to listen to and hear how the hurt affected them? And whose apology do you need to accept and move on?

We live in a time and in a world where fragile egos refuse to apologize. To acknowledge the harm they cause. We live in a time when those who do so are insincere often deflecting the pain they caused and harm they have done. 
 
But Judaism teaches us a different path. Of humanity, responsibility and humility.
 
On this holy night. May we rise to follow the teachings of teshuvah. To apologize with sincerity, to accept responsibility for our failures, and may we not wait unitl it is too late and for those of us who are hurting may we have the strength to accept a sincere apology so that we can turn toward each other once again.
 
May we strive for this tonight, tomorrow and all through the year. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
 
 

[i] https://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/39-year-apology/ (ADAPTED) Tom Hallman, Jr., is the author of A Stranger’s Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places and Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask.
[iii]  ibid
[iv] ibid
[v] ibid
Mon, November 18 2019 20 Cheshvan 5780