Apologizing and Atoning for the Dead: Yom Kippur 5780

Last week I saw a student near Columbia wearing a T-shirt that said, “Never apologize.” I cringed but did not criticize them directly. Perhaps they meant, never apologize for your feelings, or never apologize for your identity. If so, then ok. But perhaps they meant it pure and simple—never apologize, period. I understand the temptations of such a sentiment, but it is the opposite of what we are trying to convey today, when our liturgy is a repeat cycle of Selihot, expressions of remorse and petitions for forgiveness. How then does one apologize?

This semester I am teaching a course on the laws of prayer, drawing mostly on the great code of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, and of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the Shulhan Arukh. On Monday we focused on the laws of Yom Kippur in order to prepare for this holiest of days. These codes detail the protocol for confession, whether of the high priest in the Holy of Holies, which we will dwell on during the Avodah service soon, or of simple Jews who have wronged God, or one another. An essential component of the process of restoring one’s relationship is to acknowledge precisely what one has done wrong. To apologize.

Here is the established protocol: If it is another person whom you have wronged, then you must go to them and ask forgiveness. If they refuse to forgive, you go a second time, and then a third time, accompanied by three witnesses in order to publicize both your wrong doing and your sincere regret. If the person who was wronged refuses to forgive, then generally, the person who did the wrong is exonerated. The Talmud says to stop going, lest you wind up bothering the other person, harassing them almost, and thus draw them deeper into conflict and their own sin.

Usually three apologies should suffice. But what if the victim of this wrong has since died? What should you do then? The traditional Jewish answer is a bit unnerving. In such a case we are told to gather a minyan of Jews and go to the cemetery where the wronged person lies buried. Standing at their grave with the minyan, a microcosm of Israel, the person who did wrong confesses their sins in detail, apologizing to the deceased victim, and asking forgiveness. This protocol is explained in the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim (the path of life).[1] According to the commentary Mishnah B’rurah, the person who comes to apologize must walk barefooted to the grave (וצריך ללך לשם יחף), as if to reduce the distance between the living and the dead, the guilty and the innocent.

Just think about this image. Judaism is teaching us that a simple “I’m sorry” doesn’t suffice when we have caused true damage to another person’s property, feelings or reputation. One must explain the wrong that they did in detail, before witnesses, so that the apology is understood to reflect not just shame, but also learning and change.

In our culture too, when a person’s misconduct is exposed, we watch very closely to see their response. Is it defensive, or is it full of detailed remorse that demonstrates a person’s willingness to consider exactly why what they did was wrong, what harm it caused, and what can be done now to compensate the victim? This type of apology happens sometimes, but it is uncommon. I watched Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology for dressing up decades ago as Aladdin with brown makeup. Apparently, he did similar antics several times in his youth. In Trudeau’s press conference apology, he didn’t make excuses—saying that was common back then—but rather explained exactly what he had done, why it was wrong, and he repeatedly apologized. It seemed heart-felt to me, but it is hard to tell with public figures, or truly with anyone, all the motivations. It is the target of the offense who must evaluate the apology and decide when it suffices, not bystanders who were not personally offended. Also, Canadians seem to say “I’m sorry” all the time, so who knows if this one is more sincere than the others? I don’t have any commitments in Canadian politics, but I do appreciate seeing a politician who is willing to apologize.

Once a person has apologized, then the ball shifts to the court of the victim, unless they are underground. What should they do, accept immediately, or wait? It depends on the circumstances. The Shulhan Arukh discusses what I might call a “tactical reluctance to forgive” where the person who was harmed does not rush to forgive a hasty apology but rather waits for the offender to go through a process of remorse.[2] This idea is first mentioned in the Talmud, and it feels very tempting—why rush to forgive? But the commentaries warn that a person considering such delaying tactics must engage in their own introspection, to make sure that their motivation is not anger, but only for the good of the other person.[3]

Even if so, delaying forgiveness is a risky strategy. What if there isn’t another opportunity to offer forgiveness? What if they die? Or what if the person lives but despairs and then acts badly again? What if the person who refuses to forgive is viewed as arrogant and cruel? What if they in fact are arrogant and cruel? A person who refuses to apologize makes their first offense much worse, but the person who refuses to accept an apology, even if they have defensible motives, risks becoming the offender. Apologizing is a tricky business, and perhaps I can understand that student’s T-shirt a bit better!

Let’s step back into the cemetery where the barefooted victimizer is apologizing to their deceased victim. That is a grand gesture, but the Shulhan Arukh seems concerned that this too could go wrong. Sometimes an apology can make things worse. How so? If in the course of explaining what happened, the person tells their audience, living and dead, unflattering things about the victim, then even in the process of apologizing, the person can cause further harm to the reputation of the victim, who is lying underground and cannot respond. You can imagine how this might happen, can’t you? You might say, I feel bad about doing X in response to what you said or did and how that made me feel. The person beneath your bare feet can’t object, explain or offer their own apology. Perhaps for this reason Rabbi Karo reminds us, “It is an ancient decree and ban not to speak ill of the dead.”[4]

That rule, not to speak ill of the dead, is intuitive and self-evident, but the rabbis want to give it a source. The Vilna Gaon says that the source of this decree is a Midrash about the death of Moses (Tanhuma, Va’Ethanan 6), where Moses complains to God about the severe decree that denies him entrance to the promised land for just one sin, the striking of the rock. God replies, that’s not true—you sinned six times, but I didn’t call you out on all of them. In fact, the worst was when you criticized not only the sinners but also their ancestors, calling them sinners, the children of sinners (Numbers 32:14). Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deserve your rebuke?  Moses tries to defend himself—I learned this from You, God! But God says, no, I criticize people for their own sins, and leave their parents out of it.[5] This Midrash teaches us the basis for the common expression that we not speak ill of the dead, even when apologizing to them. I suspect that the Shulhan Arukh taught these two rules together for this reason—do not speak ill of the dead, even if you are apologizing to them at their grave.

During my years as a congregational rabbi, I had the difficult but profound challenge of delivering many hundreds of eulogies. Very often I found that families needed to get things off their chest—that was understandable during the family meeting, but I was careful not to include criticism of the deceased in the eulogy—it is after all a eulogy, and if you defame someone at their funeral, what are you doing? As I tell my students, this can be a fine line. Eulogies should be honest, and they need to describe a real human being, who was known and loved for who they were, not a saint who bears no resemblance to the deceased. But you need to draw the line at slandering the dead, just as the Shulhan Arukh declares. Everyone understands that no one is perfect—but the funeral is not the appropriate setting to lay out one’s grievances.

What then can one do for deceased people who have themselves done wrong? Surely, we can think of such examples, some quite horrific. Once again, the Shulhan Arukh offers wisdom and compassion.

Toward the end of the section on the laws of Yom Kippur, we read of a custom that is familiar to all of us—to pledge tzedakah on Yom Kippur. In section 621, Rabbi Karo writes, “The custom is to pledge tzedakot on Yom Kippur on behalf of the dead.” Rabbi Isserles adds: “And we mention their souls, for the dead also receive atonement on Yom Kippur.”[6] You have probably noticed that in Hebrew we usually refer not to Yom Kippur, but to Yom HaKippurim, which means, “the day of atonements,” in plural. Rabbi Karo explains in his longer book, the Beit Yosef, that the dead also need atonement on Yom Kippur. Mishnah Brurah adds, that for this reason it is called the Day of atonements in plural—for the living and for the dead.[7] Rabbi Karo refers to an ancient Midrash that has the people of Israel atoning for the generation that left Egypt, even many centuries later, for the dead too need atonement.[8]

We have arrived at Yizkor, the part of our service when we will remember the names of our loved ones, in all their glory, continuing to feel their love. We may also remember their less exalted moments, and consider the apologies they didn’t manage to give, the wrongs they didn’t manage to right. It is not our place to voice these thoughts aloud, but we can explore them in our minds. Awareness that the dead also require atonement can motivate us to repent before we die, as the Mishnah in Avot famously proclaims. It also can motivate us to do good in this world in memory of the deceased. We can dedicate ourselves to study Torah in their memory, to say prayers in their name, to do acts of kindness inspired by their example, and especially, to give tzedakah.

The book of Proverbs famously states, וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת “charity rescues from death.”[9] The Talmud claims that four strategies can annual the evil decree: giving charity, crying out to God, changing one’s reputation [lit. name], and changing one’s deeds.[10] This is the basis of the expression we recite in the prayer unetaneh tokef, ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה... .

On Yom Kippur we say many prayers, and we try to change our ways. We do these things for ourselves, and for our ancestors. When we say Kaddish, it is as if they themselves are still praising God from the grave, with us acting as the executors of their will. Today is also the day to pledge tzedakah in their memory. I mean that literally even though we are not circulating tab cards, like in the old days in many shuls. Nor am I making the JTS appeal—that was done beautifully last night by our student Noga Hurwitz—but we all ought to give generously to many tzeddakot—for poverty relief, for justice, and for Jewish education—all of which are at the core of our mission at JTS.

On p.291 you will see the paragraphs of Yizkor for specific relatives. As you say their names and think of their faces, as you recall their best moments, and perhaps also some of the harder ones, you are invited by the text to pledge tzedakah in their memory. Let’s take this literally, and in the privacy of our own thoughts, pledge a gift that will honor them appropriately. The dead need atonement, and so do the living, but only the living can act in this world. As we turn to Yizkor, we pledge to live lives of devotion, of kindness, of justice and generosity, so that the dead may find atonement, and we may be considered worthy of life. May the memories of our beloved relatives and friends who have gone on to their world remain for blessing, shining light the stars in the sky, and may they motivate us to live lives brimming with blessings in this new year.

[1]  שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות יום הכפורים סימן תרו סעיף ב. אם מת אשר חטא לו, מביא י’ בני אדם ומעמידם על קברו ואומר: חטאתי לאלהי ישראל ולפלוני זה שחטאתי לו, (ונהגו לבקש מחילה בערב יום כפור מרדכי דיומא).

[2]  שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות יום הכפורים סימן תרו סעיף א. הגה: והמוחל לא יהיה אכזרי מלמחול (מהרי”ל), אם לא שמכוון לטובת המבקש מחילה (גמרא דיומא); ואם הוציא עליו שם רע, אינו צריך למחול לו. (מרדכי וסמ”ג והגה”מ פ”ב מהלכות תשובה ומהרי”ו).

[3] משנה ברורה סימן תרו ס”ק ט. (ט) לטובת המבקש וכו’ – כדי שיהא נכנע לבו הערל ולא ירגיל בכך ומ”מ נראה דמלבו צריך להסיר השנאה ממנו אחרי דבאמת ביקש ממנו מחילה:

[4] שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות יום הכפורים סימן תרו סעיף ג. תקנת קדמונינו וחרם, שלא להוציא שם רע על המתים.

[5] ביאור הגר”א אורח חיים סימן תרו סעיף ג. תקנת כו’. תנחומא אמר משה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבש”ע כל הכעס הזה למה כו’ א”ל אתה אמרת הנה קמתם תחת אבותיכם תרבות אנשים חטאים כו’ א”ל ממך למדתי שאמרת מחתות החטאים האלה בנפשותם א”ל אני אמרתי בנפשותם ולא באבותם:

מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת ואתחנן. אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם כל הכעס הזה עלי למה, על אשר לא קדשתם אותי (שם /דברים ל”ב/), אמר לפניו עם כל הבריות אתה מתנהג במדת רחמים שנים ושלשה פעמים, שנאמר הן כל אלה יפעל אל פעמים שלש עם גבר (איוב לג כט), ואני עון אחד נמצא בי, ואין אתה מוחל לי, א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא משה הרי עשית ששה עונות, ולא גיליתי אחד מהם, בתחילה אמרת שלח נא ביד תשלח (שמות ד יג), ומאז באתי אל פרעה לדבר בשמך [הרע לעם הזה והצל לא הצלת את עמך] (שם /שמות/ ה כג), לא ה’ שלחני (במדבר טז כט), ואם בריאה יברא ה’ (שם שם /במדבר ט”ז/ ל), שמעו נא המורים (שם /במדבר/ כ י), והנה קמתם תחת אבותיכם תרבות אנשים חטאים (שם /במדבר/ לב יד), ואברהם יצחק ויעקב חטאים היו, שאמרת לבניהם כך, אמר לפניו ממך למדתי, שאמרת מחתות החטאים (שם /במדבר/ יז ג), א”ל אני אמרתי בנפשותם (שם /במדבר י”ז/), ולא באבותם,

[6]  שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות יום הכפורים סימן תרכא. נהגו לידור צדקות ביום הכיפורים בעד המתים. (ומזכירין נשמותיהם, דהמתים ג”כ יש להם כפרה ביה”כ).

[7]  ט”ז אורח חיים סימן תרכא ס”ק ד. בעד המתים. ב”י הביא שיש במדרש שאף המתים צריכים כפרה ויש להם זכות בנתינת צדק’ עבור’ שהש”י בוחן לבות ויודע שאלו היו בחיים היו נותנים צדק’: משנה ברורה סימן תרכא ס”ק יח. המתים – ולכן נקרא יום הכפורים בלשון רבים ר”ל לחיים ולהמתים [מהרי”ו]:

[8] ספרי דברים פרשת שופטים פיסקא רי. (ח) הכהנים אומרים כפר לעמך ישראל. כשהוא אומר אשר פדית ה’, מלמד שכפרה זו מכפרת על יוצאי מצרים. כפר לעמך, אלו החיים, אשר פדית, אלו המתים, מגיד שהמתים צריכים כפרה.

[9] משלי פרק י, ב. לֹא יוֹעִילוּ אוֹצְרוֹת רֶשַׁע וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת: משלי פרק יא, ד. לֹא יוֹעִיל הוֹן בְּיוֹם עֶבְרָה וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת:

[10] תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף טז עמוד ב. ואמר רבי יצחק: ארבעה דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, אלו הן: צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם, ושינוי מעשה. צדקה – דכתיב וצדקה תציל ממות, צעקה – דכתיב ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצקותיהם יוציאם, שינוי השם – דכתיב שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה, וכתיב וברכתי אתה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן, שינוי מעשה – דכתיב וירא האלהים את מעשיהם, וכתיב וינחם האלהים על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות להם ולא עשה. ויש אומרים: אף שינוי מקום, דכתיב ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך, והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול.