There’s one practice that many engage in prior to Yom Kippur, that causes me to lose my appetite. Well-meaning individuals approach others and parrot the following meaningless phrase:

“If I have offended you in any way over this past year, I ask your forgiveness.”

The word “if”, suggests uncertainty. Not only does “if”  indicate that such an offense may or may not have occurred, “if” indicates that the one asking for forgiveness is clueless as far as having committed  the offense, whatever it may have been in the first place. I’m not aware of anyone ever having questioned the aphorism “everybody loves somebody sometime”. Shouldn’t the converse to that aphorism also hold true, namely “everybody hurts somebody sometime”? And if the likelihood exists that we have hurt somebody sometime, especially those with whom we have frequent contact, then surely there are better ways of wiping the slate clean.

If one truly wishes to make amends, one must learn to live by the following truism: “We just don’t realize the impact that we have on others…good and especially bad”. As long as we interact with others, chances are good that we will hurt the feelings of others. Most of the time, we won’t even realize it. And quite often, when a third- party points this out to us, that we have in fact hurt the feelings of another person, up go our defenses and we suddenly become a babe in the woods. “What did I say” we ask in all innocence. Short of being a saint, as long as we are alive and healthy, as long as we possess the power of speech, we will offend. The are no “ifs” about it.

The most meaningless, vacuous phrase, I’ve ever heard is: “I know how you must feel”. I have heard fellow rabbis use it. The perfect response to such inanity would be “You couldn’t possibly know how I feel”. We are individuals. We are unique. No two people respond to the same situation in the exact same way. Each person responds to hurt (or joy) in his or her very own way.

A close runner up to the most meaningless, vacuous phrase, but one that in all probability pours salt on the wounds is “I don’t understand why you are so upset”. Anyone obtuse enough to add this hurtful phrase is partially correct. Such a person does not understand. Such a person does not understand that he or she has hurt someone’s feelings; such a person does not understand how to ameliorate the situation, when told that feelings have been hurt.

If one is truly sincere as far as apologizing,  then rather than offer the meaningless “if I have offended you in any way”  it behooves that person to approach the one to whom an apology is being offered with the following: “in all likelihood, I’ve said or have done something hurtful or embarrassing to you since last Yom Kippur. Could you please point it out to me, because I’m going to make every effort not to do it again. Had I taken the time to realize the implications of my word or deed, I’d like to believe that I would have stopped myself in my tracks” Alternately, one could set things right by approaching another person with whom there has been much contact and  sharing the following: “as a far from perfect human being, I need your help speaking to HaShem on Yom Kippur. If you could just point out how I have wronged you since last Yom Kippur and allow me to properly apologize for it, you will be enabling me to present myself before my Maker as one who is sincerely looking to improve my ways”.

With Yom Kippur behind us, let’s leave the “if’s” to HaShem. Let uncertainties be left to our Maker. We so much as said so in the powerful magnum opus prayer U’NeTaneh Tokef. With an entire year ahead of us, let there be no if’s in our interpersonal relations. Chances are that we will hurt or wrong those with whom we have frequent contact. Let’s ask those who seem to be so much of our lives to point out where we went wrong so that we can make it right.

No if’s, ands or buts!

For Some, Guilty is as Difficult to Say as Zbigniew

Oifen Ganniv brent dos Hittel is a fabulous Yiddish saying that came to mind recently, when I read that Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s Justice Minister is planning to unveil plans to make it illegal to refer to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor as Polish Death Camps. Literally translated, the aforementioned Yiddish aphorism tells us that the hat worn by the thief burns on his (the thief’s) head. Implied is “you have guilt written all over your face”.
While it’s true that the number of Poles that died in World War II equals the number of Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis (three million), what’s left unsaid is that it’s more than mere happenstance that Hitler targeted Poland as one of the first countries to invade. While Hitler and his war machine knew only too well that in addition to pockets of resistance, there would be individual Poles who would literally risk their lives to defy the Third Reich and save Jews at all costs, they also knew that the vast majority of Poles would look the other way to what was happening. Hitler was well aware that a little bonus such as half a kilo of butter goes a long way in war ravaged Poland, where food shortages abound, in getting Poles to turn Jews over to the Nazis. Most important of all, Hitler knew that Polish soil was extremely fertile when it came to the nurturing of anti-Semitism and that more than a few Poles felt in their heart and soul that the time was ripe for avenging the death of their savior. Could it possibly be that Zbigniew Ziobro hopes that by wiping away the name, the Polish people would be wiping away the shame?
Pardon my attempt to reproduce a German accent in print, but here in these United States a good many of us who are quite frankly sick and tired of hearing: Vee ver chust following ohduz from war criminals that have been put on trial. It insults our intelligence to hear such drivel. Apparently the Poles are very much aware of the fact that such an excuse of just following orders just doesn’t cut it. So the Poles have been trying a different tack. For decades now, the Poles have bleated: no different than you Jews, we Poles were victims as well. Excuse me! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not aware of Hitler having planned to cleanse Europe of Poles. I’m not aware of Poles having being deported to death camps simply because they were Poles. Most important of all, I’m not aware of groups of Jews jeering, as they witnessed Poles being rounded up by Nazis (unlike the Poles jeering as they witnessed Jews being rounded up by Nazis) to be transported to unknown destinations, where an all but certain death awaited them. Could it possibly be that in their obsession with victimhood, the Poles saw to compare themselves to the Jews? Forgive them, for they know not what they speak. Let them compare themselves to Ukrainians or Serbs, if they must. But comparing themselves to Jews, a people that they denigrated over the centuries makes them look ridiculous!
The silver screen has depicted southern small town sheriffs as “urging” the one who has just been apprehended to “fess up”. “You’ll feel a whole lot better,” they reassure the suspect. Perish the thought that we Jews typify a southern small town sheriff. And we have no interest in serving as judge, jury and executioner when it comes to complicity on the part of the Poles with the Nazis. Just the same, the Polish people would feel a whole lot better if they fessed up. While coming forth with their mea culpa, the Polish people could have admitted to the Jews that even though the Poles exemplified the good, the bad and the ugly when it involved Jews, the Poles could have urged the Jews never to forget the good and positive that came from their Polish experience over the centuries. After all, isn’t Eastern European cuisine essentially Polish cuisine? Doesn’t the Yiddish language contain any number of words of Polish origin? Why, even our family names reveal our Polish past!
Many years ago, I recall having read that anyone who seems himself as a victim has no future. Futures are made up of people who have never abdicated their freedom. Futures lie in the hands of those who chart their own course in life, not those who wring their hands and cry that their hands were tied.
By removing Polish from Death Camp signs the Polish people hope to heal their past. It’s quite possible however that they are harming their future.