Recently, I brushed shoulders with a man while I was entering a sandwich shop. He was leaving. “Sorry,” I said. “Sorry,” he answered. No harm, no foul.

“Sorry” covers a multitude of awkward but harmless situations. Yet for some people, “sorry” represents a Get Out of Jail card. They believe they can do anything, say they’re sorry and escape the consequences. Two related stories—I’m not sure if Bernard Madoff has said he’s sorry; he recently claimed that his investors would get their principal back—emerged in the last week.

John Galliano, a designer, was fired by Christian Dior for anti-Semitic statements. (Natalie Portman, the Israeli-born Oscar winner, represents Dior.) “I unreservedly apologize for my behavior in causing any offense,” said Galliano, alleged to have hurled anti-Semitic abuse at a couple sitting near him in a Paris bar. He was caught on video saying, among other things, “I love Hitler.” Who would be offended by that? And anyway, Galliano said he’s sorry.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, plans a run at the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Confronted by a questioner at the University of Pennsylvania regarding his three marriages, including deserting his first wife when she had cancer and cheating on his second, Gingrich responded, “I believe in a forgiving God.” Yes harm, yes foul. But say you’re sorry as often as required, and you’re free and clear. Until Republicans start talking about family values.

Judaism offers a more behavior-oriented, three-step approach to atonement. First, one recognizes what one has done wrong. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Bernie Madoff, John Galliano and Newt Gingrich have all demonstrated a deep reluctance to admit they did the wrong thing. In effect they ask, “Did what I said or do really offend or hurt you? If so, then I’m sorry.” Second, one vows not to make the same mistake.

Finally, one doesn’t repeat the offensive words or action. Of course, we hope that the offender won’t end up telling us, “I promised I’d never shoplift another laptop, and I haven’t. But I guess I did chug half a dozen beers then drive the night they charged me with vehicular homicide. Sorry.” Action not words reveals repentance.

Our jails and prisons are full of criminals who asked for forgiveness only after they were caught and expected it to be granted without further thought. Some may have genuinely repented. Prison can focus a mind and a conscience, I am sure, although America’s recidivism rates can stand to be reduced. Still, “sorry” as a catch phrase rivals only “Can’t we move on?” as the great American cop out.

I suggest we consider the words of Micah 6:8. They instruct us to forego all the hype and keep it simple: “Only to do justice / And to love goodness / And to walk modestly with your God.” But if you think this is too heavy a burden—sorry.

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1 Comment

  1. Cousin Alan on March 23, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    David: I have just read some of your website postings. Very interesting and
    well researched. You might be interested in an old commentary on “Sorry.”
    Barbara turned on the light in our walk-in closet. Unfortunately, the light did not go on. Instead, the pull string broke off at the metal connector. Jamie, probably about 9 or 10, asked, “What are you going to tell daddy?”
    Barbara responded, “I’ll tell him I’m sorry.” Without missing a beat, Jamie
    offered, “Daddy doesn’t take sorries.”
    So you see, there are other sides to the same story.

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