Monday, September 7, 2009

Teshuvah and Remorse

Remember the Crazy Eddie's chain of electronic stores from the mid-1980's? They had ads featuring a guy screaming - literally screaming about how crazy Eddie was for selling all kinds of stuff at such low prices. Well, it turns out that Crazy Eddie's was a hotbed of white-collar crime, from simple tax skimming all the way to securities fraud. I listen to an NPR podcast called "Planet Money", and a while ago they featured a story about Eddie's nephew, Sam Antar, who worked behind the scenes at the company, got himself arrested, turned state's witness, and got off with a slap on the wrist. It's a fascinating story, and a worthwhile read.
But what truly caught my attention came at the end of the interview. The reporter asked Sam, "Are you sorry? Do you feel bad for what you've done?" He said basically the same thing that appears on his blog:

Do I have any Guilt and Remorse?

Did he ever have remorse? "Never ... We simply did not care about any one of our victims. We simply committed crime because we could. During the conduct of my crimes I never lost one nights sleep or spent one moment caring about the harm I was inflicting on others.

Apologies are irrelevant. They don’t change anything. It does not undo any crimes. Does an apology really erase the effects of past criminal behavior? As a person who used words to deceive and lie to others in the commission of my crimes I say you must judge people by their actions and not by their kind words. Too often we are moved by well meaning but empty words.

As a criminal I used well sounding words too exploit you in an effort to commit my crimes. I knew as good human beings you would feel compassion for me. However, the white collar criminal uses your humanity such as compassion as a weakness to be exploited. For example if I apologize for my actions, how do you really know if I am contrite or if anyone else who apologizes is really contrite? Therefore, judge people more by the actions they take after a mistake or error rather than their well sounding apologies.

Indeed, why does it matter to us if a person apologizes? What difference does it make what a person says? Shouldn't we care more about his actions than whatever he says?
And yet, Judaism teaches us that saying "I'm sorry" forms a critical component of the Teshuvah process. We must confess our sins to God, and express our remorse, shame and commitment to never repeat that behavior. Equally significantly, when addressing sins which we perpetrated on our fellow man Rambam (Laws of Teshuvah 2:9) writes,
But sins between man and his fellow man, such as one who injures his friend, or curses his friend or stole from him or any similar act - he is not forgiven, ever, until he gives his friend that which he is obligated and appeases him. Even though he returned the money that he owed him, he must appease him and ask him for forgiveness."
Clearly, apologies are important. It does matter whether a person asks for forgiveness. But what about Sam Antar's point, that words mean nothing, and actions speak much louder than words? How can you ever know whether an apology carries any deeper meaning than mere words?
In a way, you cannot know.
Certainly, God expects us to apologize sincerely. He wants us to truly feel remorse and regret, and humbly ask for forgiveness. And He knows whether we mean it or not. On Yom Kippur we specifically confess for the sin of וידוי פה - "confession of the mouth" and not of the heart. Despite the possibility that our apology was only lip service, God accepted it anyway. But even if the apology comes not from a deep feeling of shame, but more from a fear of punishment, retribution, or even a desire for public rehabilitation, apologies still have value. When asking for forgiveness, a person needs to lower himself in the eyes of his neighbor, in essence subjugating himself and begging for absolution. That act of submission in and of itself is humbling.
We should apologize with sincerity. That's really the idea of an apology. But even if we don't really mean it, it's still "Hard to say "I'm Sorry'". (With apologies to Chicago). And that struggle is part of Teshuvah as well.