Forget Saying ‘Sorry’ — Just Be Honest
You are walking down a crowded New York street minding your own business, careful to avoid bumping into anyone else. Then someone smashes into you. He or she will ignore you, or perhaps say “sorry” and you might say “sorry” back. Why? The offender doesn’t care. Otherwise he or she would have been more careful. “Sorry” is just a meaningless exclamation that conveys no truth on either side.
You might say that this is just the etiquette, the formality that is supposed to oil the wheels of human contact. And that’s true. But there comes a moment when such conventions need to be reexamined for their usefulness or sheer stupidity.
I was brought up at a time and in a place where etiquette mattered, and I still think it should. Then at the tender age of 16, I was catapulted into Israel. I arrived at Haifa port to find myself pushed, shoved, and insulted. I was told not to be so British. The Sabra (in theory) might have been prickly on the outside with none of the smooth politeness or polish of the British, but at least they were honest.
And it wasn’t just the secular Zionist pioneers who despised the Diaspora Jews with their pathetic, apologetic good-mannered affectations. The ultra-Orthodox world is not known for its polite manners either.
My first introduction to a Hasidic rebbe’s Friday Night Tisch was in Jerusalem. I had been packed off to a yeshivah in Bayit Vegan, a suburb of the city. There were two other English students there and they decided to induct me into the mysteries of Hasidim. Late one Friday night, we walked the five miles or so down into Machaneh Yehudah, home of the Gerrer Rebbe. The hall was teeming with men, all waiting for their Rebbe to arrive. At midnight, the door opened and in came the Rebbe — a small person with a phalanx of bodyguards all dressed in the same uniform. Wherever he turned his gaze, the mass of black-clad bodies struggled to get out of his line of vision like waves of plankton escaping the whales. He eventually retired behind a wooden crash barrier and sat down at the top table, flanked by his senior followers. He proceeded to dispense shirayim wine, bread, and fish via his majordomo to the faithful. The Hasidim rushed the barrier to get as close as possible to hear his holy words.
I was shocked to see hundreds of grown men hurl themselves at and over each other to get closer to their saintly Rebbe. I stood back in a mixture of awe and revulsion.
I don’t like hypocrisy and two-faced slimy obsequiousness. I don’t like being rude and aggressive, and thinking it is being honest. But neither can I bear this false convention of saying “sorry” all the time. In our tradition, if we have done something wrong, we really should apologize, ask for forgiveness, and determine not to do it again. But we don’t have to keep saying sorry.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.