One of the hardest, if not the hardest, words to say is "sorry". Oh yeah, I know we all say it but have you ever noticed how it always comes with a caveat? "Sorry, but..." or "Well I'm sorry but..." and so on. Just plain "sorry" is very rare to hear.
Years ago I performed an urgent procedure on a patient in an emergency room with a temporary sedative that I had used many times before without incident. This sedative has a 1 in 10000 risk of a bad side effect that is completely unpredictable. That night, out of the blue the side effect happened. Despite my best efforts the patient wound up in the ICU. Fortunately she made a good recovery.
Now, after the initial crisis was over, I had to meet with the family, the same one which had been told "Don't worry, she'll be out for 5 minutes, it's a safe procedure"! I sat down with them, explained to them every step of what had happened and concluded with "I'm sorry". No caveat, no "Well, how was I supposed to know it was going to happen!" or anything like that.
The family then went home and did an internet search on the drug I used. They discovered a webpage where it was written that the sedative I chose was not to used in patients of the age their relative was. When they discovered this, they lodged a complaint with the hospital. Naturally the ER administrator held a brief investigation and inquired as to why I had chosen that drug. I did a literature search and presented him with three recent papers that conclusively proved that the contraindication was based on theoretical concern and that, in fact, there is plenty of evidence that the drug is completely safe for the type of patient I used it on. The administrator accepted this and closed the case but asked me to write a letter of explanation to the family to seal matters.
Naturally I did, but at no point did I mention my literature search or its conclusions. What would have been the point? Imagine you're the angry family member. You're still grieving over the near-loss of a relative and suddenly you get a letter from the doctor you hold responsible saying "Hey, sorry about what happened but here's proof it ain't my fault!" Exactly what kind of reaction would that elicit?
Instead I simply wrote that I was sorry, that my thoughts were with the patient for a good recovery and that had I known the complication would have happened, I would have chosen an alternative therapy.
Fortunately the family was happy with that and most importantly, the patient made a good recovery.
This is very relevant to Elul and the upcoming holidays. Too often in life we are confronted with mistakes we have made and develop an irresistable urge to defend ourselves from criticism, the "Sorry but..." reflex. Sometimes this works but what does that say about us? We don't like being criticized. We don't like thinking of our personal imperfections and the consequences they cause others. We are prepared to shield ourselves as much as possible from the fallout, no matter how much twisting it takes.
But this doesn't work when confronting God. With other people, our excuses might be accepted. God knows what is in the depth of our hearts and our true intentions. There are no excuses before Him. "Sorry but..." carries no currency with the Heavenly court. How could it?
How many times does a person do something he knows is questionable but justifies it to his neshamah with some vague excuse or "I heard there was a heter". How many times do we know we've done something wrong, perhaps loshon horo or a lefnei iver. Yet we don't own up to it. We justify it to avoid the feeling that we've sinned. But the Heavenly Court knows the truth.
In Mas. Berachos we are told that when Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai was dying his students asked him for a blessing. His response was: "May you fear God as much as you fear man." "Not more?" the students asked. "When a person commits a sin he always looks around to make sure no one saw him but God sees everything yet people do not hesitate to sin in front of him" was the reply.
If this is true, that we fear man more than God, then this can be the valuable lesson for Elul. First, accept that there is no bargaining before God. If we have sinner, we must say "sorry" with an stipulations, excuses or conditions. This requires an honest chesbon hanefesh which is very hard to do. Having done that, we must now follow through to the logical conclusion. If before God I am able to say "sorry" then I must also muster the strength to say "sorry" without hesitation before any people I have also offended.
Therefore I hereby apologize to any whom I have hurt through word or deed in this past year and in turn I grant forgiveness without qualification to those who have offended me. Let us all endeavour to put our negative feelings behind us during this final stretch to Rosh HaShanah and enter the new year a little closer to the ideal God has set for us.