Saying I’m Sorry
By Michael G. Kohn

Spring has arrived in New York. Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote: ‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.’ And the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ How do we show our love of God? Well, while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we showed our love through voluntary offerings at the Temple. And in this week’s portion, parashat Vayikra, the Torah enumerates five, the first three of which are the olah, or burnt offering, the minhah, or meal offering, and the zevah-sh’lamim, or peace offering.

Now, Erich Segal once wrote: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ However, for those who love God, but have transgressed one of God’s commandments, the Torah commands that they say they’re sorry. The final two offerings enumerated in Vayikra’hatat, or sin offering, and asham, or guilt offering’were the prescribed way of saying ‘I’m sorry’ for transgressing God’s negative commandments.

Once the Temple was destroyed, however, it was no longer possible to express our love for, and our contrition to, God in the manner prescribed in this parashah and so we looked for a substitute. Now prayer is one method of expressing our love. In fact, in reciting the Sh’ma twice a day, we read those verses we learned as children: ‘V’ahavta et adonai elohekhah b’khol l’vav’kha u’v’khol nafsh’kha u’v’khol m’odekh‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’
But how do we now show our love by saying, ‘I’m sorry’ for transgressing God’s commandments? Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3, wrote:

Bazman hazeh, she’ein Beit HaMikdash kayam, v’ein lanu mizbah kaparah, ein sham elah t’shuvah. T’shuvah m’khaperet al kol ha’aveirot.‘In this time, when there is no Temple and we do not have an alter of atonement, there is nothing but t’shuvah (repentance). T’shuvah atones for all sins. . . .

For many of us, this happens once a year on Yom Kippur when we come to synagogue or temple, read (or listen to) the prayers. But often, there is no thought given to, or true feeling behind, it. Such a ritualistic act without much if any cost to us, financial or otherwise, is not a true substitute for what the Torah commands. As is written in II Samuel 24:24: ‘v’lo a’aleh ladonai elohai olot hinam‘and I shall not offer up to the Lord my God, free burnt offerings.’

So what should we do? Again in his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides suggests a solution. First, one should cease the act that constitutes the transgression. Second, one should resolve in his or her heart never to transgress in that manner again. Third, one should confess verbally, specifically enumerating those transgressions he or she has resolved never to do again. (Hilkhot T’shuvah 2:2) However, it is not required, and, in fact, it is preferable, that one’s confession not be made publicly but only between the transgressor and God. (Hilkhot T’shuvah 2:5)

Finally, although it is most desirable to make this t’shuvah during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it may be made at any time. (Hilkhot T’shuvah 2:4, 6) In fact, we have the opportunity to say ‘I’m sorry’ three times each weekday if we engage in daily prayer. The fourth b’rakhah (blessing) of the Amidah (standing, silent prayer) asks God to bring us back to Torah [and] to lead us back to God, ‘b’t’shuvah sh’leimah‘truly repentant.’

We are all busy. Many of us find it difficult if not impossible to daven (pray) three times a day, and for many it is not their practice to do so. The Minhah, or afternoon service, can be read in 10’15 minutes, and we all should be able to spare such time in the middle of most days. And while it is more desirable to pray with a minyan, one may pray as an individual. And one need not even pray in Hebrew. Small pamphlets containing this short service are available from various sources for individual and group prayer.

So if we get in the habit of daily prayer, we also will be able to restore to our daily lives the saying of ‘I’m sorry’ to God, as is prescribed in this week’s parashah.