There’s a woman in my community who I used to be pretty friendly with. Then something changed. She’s not mean to me, but she seems to be keeping her distance even as I try to continue to reach out to her. As we approach the High Holidays, I’m thinking about making amends with people I may have wronged. But I don’t think I wronged her. I could bring it up with her, but I’m afraid her distance may be based on her being jealous of me. So if I ask her why she got so distant, the question may embarrass her. Is it better for me to just give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s struggling or do I confront her so maybe I can apologize for some faux pas I wasn’t aware of?
The yomim noraim (Days of Awe) are the time when we’re meant to make amends with one another, in anticipation of making amends with God. From a strictly technical standpoint, the offender should seek out the one he wronged and ask forgiveness but the yomim noraim are also a time when we make special effort to go beyond the minimum. Accordingly, it’s good to seek reconciliation even when you’re not the offender.
The Talmud in Yoma (87a) tells three stories about asking forgiveness, which demonstrate various stages of going the extra mile.
In the first story, Rabbi Yirmiya offended Rabbi Abba, so he went to ask forgiveness, as one should. It’s not clear why Rabbi Yirmiya didn’t follow through – maybe he was nervous, maybe Rabbi Abba refused to come out – but for whatever reason, he sat on Rabbi Abba’s doorstep. While he was waiting there, Rabbi Abba’s maid accidentally poured out some wastewater on Rabbi Yirmiya’s head. This prompted Rabbi Yirmiya to recite Psalms 113:7, “He (God) raises the needy person from the trash heap.” When Rabbi Abba heard this, he went out and said, “Now I must apologize to you, as per Proverbs 6:3, ‘Go humble yourself and plead with your neighbor.’”
The second story tells us that a certain individual wronged Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira responded to the slight by making himself available: he would pass by him regularly so that the offender would have ample opportunity to come apologize.
The final story is perhaps the oddest. A certain butcher wronged Rav and he didn’t come to apologize. Before Yom Kippur, Rav decided to go and try to make amends. Rav Huna encountered Rav on the way and thought, “This will not end well,” so he tagged along to see what would happen. When Rav entered, the butcher was sitting, doing his work. He looked up, saw Rav, and said, “Go away, I have nothing to say to you.” He chopped the animal on the table in front of him and a bone shard flew out, striking him fatally in the neck.
In the first story, Rabbi Yirmiya actually went to ask Rabbi Abba, though he never completed the task for whatever reason. Nevertheless, circumstances made him at least partially a victim, motivating Rabbi Abba to meet him halfway.
In the second story, Rav Zeira went out of his way to facilitate the offender asking his forgiveness, which was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty.
In the final story, Rav did all the work. He – a great Torah leader! – went and presented himself before a simple butcher. The butcher had no reasonable excuse for not apologizing. As Rav Huna anticipated, however, the butcher’s stubborn refusal did not end well. (You and I should not expect such swift Divine retribution if people insult us; we’re not Rav.)
These stories present great examples of how we should go the extra mile: by meeting people halfway, by making ourselves approachable and even by going to them when they’re really obligated to come to us. But Rav’s story also comes with a caveat: Rav Huna could see that things were going to transpire poorly. Perhaps, if someone is not ready to make amends, we should suppress the urge to put them on the spot. Rav may have had the butcher’s best interest at heart in wanting to clear things up before Yom Kippur but the butcher clearly wasn’t on the same page and Rav’s visit ended up doing him a pretty big disservice.
Getting back to your situation, maybe you inadvertently offended this person, maybe you didn’t. You think that she might just be jealous (you don’t say of what); maybe that’s on her, maybe you flaunt your advantages without being aware of it. Who knows? But you’ll never know unless you approach her. (You’ll notice that I said “approach,” not “confront!”)
Can I promise that it will work? Nope. Rav’s visit to the butcher didn’t go as planned and yours might not, either (though if it doesn’t, it probably won’t be nearly as dramatic). But there’s no better time to find out gently, by making yourself available and meeting your friend halfway. If you don’t feel that your efforts are being reciprocated, then maybe don’t push it too hard. She’ll know that the door is open when she’s ready.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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