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Saying Sorry

It was now a few weeks from Christmas, and I dug my hands into my pockets as I approached the Reb’s front door. A pacemaker had been put into his chest a few weeks earlier, and while he’d come through the procedure all right, looking back, I think that was the man’s last chip. His health was like a slow leak from a balloon. He had made his 90th birthday — joking with his children that until 90, he was in charge, and after that, they could do what they wanted.

Maybe reaching that milestone was enough. He barely ate anymore — a piece of toast or fruit was a meal — and if he walked up the driveway once or twice, it was major exercise. He still took rides to the temple with Teela, his Hindu health care friend. People there helped him from the car into a wheelchair, and inside he’d greet the kids in the after-school program. At the ShopRite, he used the cart like a walker, gripping it for balance. He chatted with the other shoppers. True to his Depression roots, he’d buy bread and cakes from the “50 percent off” section. When Teela rolled her eyes, he’d say, “It’s not that I need it — it’s that I got it!”

He was a joyous man, a marvelous piece of God’s machinery, and it was no fun watching him fall apart.In his office now, I helped him move boxes. He would try to give me books, saying it broke his heart to leave them behind. I watched him roll from pile to pile, looking and remembering, then putting stuff down and moving to another pile.

If you could pack for heaven, this was how you’d do it, touching everything, taking nothing.

“Is there anyone you need to forgive at this point?” I asked him.

“I’ve forgiven them already,” he said.

“Everyone?”

“Yes.”

“Have they forgiven you?”

“I hope. I have asked.” He looked away. “You know, we have a tradition. When you go to a funeral, you’re supposed to stand by the coffin and ask the deceased to forgive anything you’ve ever done.” He made a face. “Personally, I don’t want to wait that long.”

I remember when the Reb made his most public of apologies. It was his last High Holiday sermon as the senior rabbi of the temple.

He could have used the occasion to reflect on his accomplishments. Instead he asked forgiveness from this flock. He apologized for not being able to save more marriages, for not visiting the homebound more frequently, for not easing more pain of parents who had lost a child, for not having money to help widows or families in economic ruin. He apologized to teenagers with whom he didn’t spend enough teaching time. He apologized for no longer being able to come to workplaces for brown bag discussions. He even apologized for the sin of not studying every day, as illness and commitments had stolen precious hours.

“For all these, God of forgiveness,” he concluded, “forgive me, pardon me …”

Officially, that was his final “big” sermon.

“Grant me atonement” were his last three words.

And now the Reb was urging me not to wait.

“Mitch, it does no good to be angry or carry grudges.”

He made a fist. “It churns you up inside. It does you more harm than the object of your anger.”

“So let it go?” I asked.

“Or don’t let it get started in the first place,” he said. “You know what I found over the years? When I had a disagreement with someone, and they came to talk to me, I always began by saying, ‘I’ve thought about it. And in some ways maybe you’re right.’

“Now, I didn’t always believe that. But it made things easier. Right from the start, they relaxed. A negotiation could take place. I took a volatile situation and, what’s the word … ?”

“Defused it?”

“Defused it. We need to do that. Especially with family.”

“You know, in our tradition, we ask forgiveness from everyone — even casual acquaintances. But with those we are closest with — wives, children, parents — we too often let things linger. Don’t wait, Mitch. It’s such a waste.”

He told me a story. A man buried his wife. At the gravesite, he stood by the Reb, tears falling down his face.

“I loved her,” he whispered.

The Reb nodded.

“I mean  … I really loved her.”

The man broke down.

“And … I almost told her once.”

The Reb looked at me sadly.

“Nothing haunts like the things we don’t say.”

Later that day, I asked the Reb to forgive me for anything I might have ever said or done that hurt him. He smiled and said that while he couldn’t think of anything, he would “consider all such matters addressed.”

“Well,” I joked, “I’m glad we got that over with.”

“You’re in the clear.”

“Timing is everything.”

“That’s right. Which is why our sages tell us to repent exactly one day before we die.”

“Wait. How do you know it’s the day before you die?”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Exactly.”

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