Sermon: Lessons In Apology

2018 September 16

Back in May, a man named Quai James made a video of a little four-year-old Hasidic boy in his neighborhood with Quai’s own voice making fun of the boy because of the boy’s haircut. The boy’s hair is shaved in some places, long in others, and he has peyot – the curly locks – in keeping with the teachings of his community. At the time that Quai encounters him, the boy is crying – about what, we don’t know. Quai approaches him and says, “I’d be crying too if I looked like that. That’s f-ed up, what they’re doing to you.” He continues berating the boy and joking that his hairdresser should be fired. The boy stands there staring at him looking confused and hurt.


Quai then posts the video on social media and immediately it goes viral. It gets hundreds of thousands of views. Comments start pouring in. A lot of people are gleefully sharing the joke and enjoying the kid’s discomfort. But even more people are outraged. They’re calling it cruel, they’re calling it anti-Semitic, they’re asking what kind of a grown man would take pleasure from mocking a little kid.


And through the mirror of the internet a picture begins to form of Quai and what he’s done that he does not like at all. He thinks of himself as a good person. He is someone who enjoys service and giving back. And he has nothing against Jews. Quai is black and when he realizes that this has opened up old wounds and resentments between blacks and Jews in his neighborhood, he is appalled and ashamed.


Meanwhile the internet sensation has spiraled completely out of control with real anti-Semites applauding. Quai decides that he has to do whatever it takes to fix this. So he takes up the same medium that did the damage, only this time, he turns the video camera on himself. And he offers the most stunning, authentic, heartfelt apology I have ever heard. This is really worth a look when you get a chance – Quai James.


He starts out by stating exactly what he did: “I recently posted online a video of me coming at a little kid in regards to his haircut.” Simple. Straightforward. The thing he did wrong. Then he apologizes. He says, “I want to sincerely apologize to this young boy and his family… I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I think about this every day now.” He explains his motivations which were basically to make a joke, to post something funny, but not to disrespect Jews. He said that he’s a respectful person, a community guy. He says this video made him look like a person that he is not. BUT, crucially, he doesn’t use these explanations to explain it away. He doesn’t try to erase his responsibility. He claims full responsibility several times in the video. He says, “It’s my fault that I didn’t think about this while I was doing it, before I even did it. I should have been more considerate and more open to other people’s feelings.” He concludes by saying, “I just want to let the world know that that right there was one big old mistake.”


Compare an apology like this to the pseudo-apologies and non-apologies of public figures who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. I’m thinking, for example, of the government’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico – the refusal to even admit the loss of life and the devastation that still to this day, a year later, goes unaddressed. I’m thinking of people accused of sexual assault as part of the “me too” reckoning who complain that their intentions were misunderstood and that they’re sorry if they hurt anybody. That’s not an apology. I’m thinking of certain Catholic priests who molested children and people like Lance Armstrong who were caught doping and who say, “It’s not good but everybody does it.” And they point fingers at others. That’s also not an apology.


If we’re honest, it’s not just politicians and child molesters who have trouble really apologizing. We all have trouble with it. It’s hard.

·         “I’m sorry that you felt that way.” Not an apology.

·         “I would have normally been on time, but you wouldn’t believe the morning I had.” Not an apology.

·         “My dog is not usually like that. Really, she’s the sweetest thing. Fifi, I don’t know what got into you!” Not an apology.

·         Or we hear this from the 8-year-old set in my household: “Sorry!” Not an apology.


This is the time of the Jewish High Holidays, right between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Jewish tradition it’s a special time set aside for turning the video camera on oneself and reflecting on the year past and the future year. It’s a time to claim responsibility for mistakes, make amends if possible, and set intentions to do better in the coming year. This process is called “t’shuva.” T’shuva is often translated as “repentance,” but repentance is a really creepy word to a lot of us. You think of guys wearing sandwich boards yelling, “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” And what we assume they mean by that is “Stop being gay” or “women, stop disobeying your husbands!” But the Hebrew word “t’shuva” literally means a turning or a returning to our best self. It’s a coming home to who we really are.


The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught that there are three steps to t’shuva:

1.      Confession – admitting and taking responsibility for what you did that was wrong.

2.      Regret or repair – if it’s possible, apologizing, acknowledging how what you did caused pain, making amends, making restitution, rebuilding.

3.      Vowing not to repeat the misdeed – and you know when you’ve fully internalized this step when the opportunity presents itself to do the thing again and you decline


So confession, repair, and vowing to do better. It’s hard stuff. We all do things that somewhere inside us we know are wrong. And it can be really hard to admit it, really hard to make amends, and really, really hard to not do it again. Because usually there’s a reason why we did it in the first place.


Our wrongdoing can be dramatic things like emotional or physical violence. It can be subtle things like speaking negatively about someone or failing to help someone when we could. It can be dishonesty or failure to try in our closest relationships. It can be family things like, for me, losing patience with my kids and snapping at them or not always returning my mother’s phone calls in, shall we say, a timely fashion. And for all of us it can be things that we do and use and buy that take too much from the earth and contribute to rising temperatures and devastating storms like Hurricanes Maria and Florence and Typhoon Manghut. We’re all implicated in the losses that result.


You would think that the High Holidays, if they are about facing all this terrible stuff that we’ve done would be grim occasions. And they certainly can be somber in parts. The fasting on Yom Kippur is a way to go really deep into yourself and be vividly real and that’s not always fun. But overall, the High Holidays, especially in Hasidic communities, are joyful and even ecstatic. Because what they are really about is the human ability to transform. They attest to the idea that we can turn and return and that there is a fundamental goodness in us to return to. We don’t have to be stuck in our painful patterns forever. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we can do t’shuva and we can change. And this change is way larger than any of us.


Quai James models this. In his own way, he follows the three steps of Maimonides and makes a brilliant t’shuva , returning to himself. First he confesses his mistake. He declares that this is not who he wants to be. He says something in the apology video that’s very revealing. Referring to himself mocking the kid, he says, “That right there was a form of bullying. I’m not a bully. I would never bully anyone. I can’t say never because that right there was a form of it.” He’s speaking out loud the pain of confronting the disconnect between his image of himself (not a bully) and his behavior (bullying in that instance). He knows that there is a goodness inside him that he can return to. And so he names what he did and owns it.


This takes him straight to Maimonides’ third step – to vow to not repeat the mistake again. After the incident Quai went out of his way to talk with people in the Hasidic community. He sat down with someone for an hour and learned all about the haircut. What the left side means, what the right side means, what the shaved part means and what the payot mean. He received what he called a “free education.” We can be sure that when Quai James now sees little Hasidic boys in the neighborhood he offers them, not mockery, but grounded respect.


But the most powerful part to me of Quai’s t’shuva process was his fulfillment of the second step – the sincere effort to make amends and to repair the damage done. The video apology itself is huge. It went viral, just like the first video. And looking at the online comments, it was clear that it had had an impact. In addition to apologizing in the video, he talks about his respect for Jews and compares all that they’ve gone through to all that the black community has gone through. By referring to their common experience of discrimination and violence Quai works to build a bridge over any fissure that his video caused.


But Quai was still not convinced that he had done everything he could to make it right. So he went back into the Hasidic neighborhood and asked some random Hasids what one can do to make amends if one has disrespected a Jew. They immediately recognized him, knew the entire story, had seen both videos, and told him that the family of the boy had accepted his apology and forgave him.


Quai still took it further. He ended up volunteering in a soup kitchen in that community. He did an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward with a rabbi and a Jew of color and they had honest dialogue about topics of race, culture, mistakes, and forgiveness. I can only imagine that this is a healing and beautiful thing for anyone who watches it, especially for members of one or both of these communities. Through his authentic efforts to make amends, Quai played a role in repairing the brokenness of our world that went far, far beyond any harm he had caused.


And this is the stunning beauty of t’shuva. When we turn the video camera on ourselves and take full responsibility for our actions, it doesn’t just get us right with God or with the person we hurt, it doesn’t just give us a fresh start; it can open up hearts all around us and irrigate entire communities. It can model for others the process of turning and returning to our best selves. It can spread goodness virally. It can inject hope into places of despair. Trust can start to ricochet from person to person.


A rabbinic teaching says that we should always do t’shuva the day before we die. And of course none of us knows when we’re going to die so this means we should do it every day. Hurry to do it before it’s too late. The question is not whether we’re going to make mistakes. The question is what are we going to do after we’ve made them. Hurry before it’s too late.


The guy with the sandwich board shouts, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” I believe that deep down he means the same thing: Time is running out to repair relationships and change our course so that we are better aligned with our highest self. Time is running out for all of us. We all live with a ticking clock – some of us are a lot more aware of it than others. But time is running out. Let’s take the opportunity of the High Holidays, let’s take the opportunity every single day. Take responsibility for our actions, work to repair what we’ve broken, turn and return to ourselves and build a new way forward.


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