Saying Sorry

Today is Sorry Day – an historic occasion in Australian history where the Government formally moves to acknowledge injustice of the past and set forward reconciliation to the future.

I admire the new Government for following through on its committment and making this a priority.  I also wanted to explore the meaning of the apology a little more.  My daughter came home from Primary School today and told me about a special flag with a yellow spot on it.  She did not understand what happened and why, but she did know something was different.  She was confused about “why this flag was not Australia’s flag, but it was Australia’s flag at the same time.”

Apologies are important where they are warranted.  It is hard to look at the condition of the Aboriginal population today and claim that this apology is not required.  However apologies also come with consequences, and in the rush toward the first session of Parliament, this may not have been attended due diligence through public discussion.  Our PM also claimed the apology to be meaningful.  I have no doubt that it was to him personally, and to many many Australians.  However there has also been a fair amount of indifference, discomfort, and even rascist comment coming forward about what happened today and why.

The Jewish concept of an apology is tied to the action of Teshuva, loosely translated as repentance.   There is much Rabbinic commentary about reward and punishment (Schar vOnas) that are byproducts of our relationship with G-d.   There is a section of an online essay that defines the Jewish approach in very articulate terms:

Accepting the difference between punishment and inevitable consequence isn’t easy. Most of us would like to make our past failings simply disappear, and hope that our saying, “I’m sorry” is sufficient. In truth, as we all know, the more intimate the relationship the more complex the Teshuva. How often do we want to make it all go away with a heartfelt apology only to be confronted by our “victims” reluctance or inability to let go of the past? How often does the attempted apology turn into righteous indignation and further offense, hurt, and distance? Unfortunately, it is our unwarranted expectation that the apology should suffice which gets us into trouble. We need to accept that some hurts don’t simply disappear with an apology. We must accept that certain behaviors carry inevitable consequences that are beyond our immediate control. This was the mistake of the group of Jews who attempted to enter Eretz Yisroel after the sin of the Miraglim. They heard the terrible decree of G-d and wanted to make it all go away with their heartfelt Teshuva and apology. They wanted to believe that if they would show G-d how much they wanted to occupy Eretz Yisroel, G-d would relent and forgive the past. However, they refused to take into account that the Sin of the Spies caused inevitable consequence that wouldn’t go away just because they had said they were sorry. 

It is incumbent upon us all to accept the full spectrum of consequences that our actions set in motion. Some of them are satisfied with a simple apology; others demand greater effort and time. However, one thing is absolutely certain. Every action results in a consequence of reward or punishment.

Teshuvah is about renewing a relationship, and showing remorse and genuine understanding of a past misdeed is the first step.   But it is a beginning and not an end.  A true apology indicates strength.  The Jewish position goes even further by obligating acceptance of an apology and making a two way process of communication a pre-requisite to moving forward. 

Jewish heritage is about social action, with an emphasis on the action.  Words must be accompanied by action.  That may not mean compensation (but it might).  It may mean delivering contemporary social support, development, education, and sustainable infrastructure to Aboriginal populations.  It may mean greater integration of Aboriginal heritage into Australian culture.  It may mean so much more than that to indigenous and all Australians. 

Or, if nothing changes it may not mean anything at all.  Empty words can hurt more than no words at all.  Tomorrow the sun will rise and Australia may or may not be a better society as a result of today’s historic political proclaim.  However the truth of the apology will not be evident tomorrow.  By the time Australian’s next go to the ballot box we will know whether today’s apology will have changed the nation, for better, for worse, or for nought.

“Who is mighty?” asks the Midrash. “One who converts an enemy into a friend.” It takes great courage to say, “I am sorry for what I did and I regret it. Please forgive me.”  Australia has mandated this into the annal of history.  It is what happens next that is more important than what happened today.  

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