Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher v’Nikatev: Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, we stay up late into the night to sing songs of remorse and to ask for forgiveness—a service called “Selihot.” Some communities begin to perform this service at the beginning of Elul, rising early each morning to sing heart-wrenching liturgy begging God to grant us atonement for our wrongdoing. Before we reach the point of forgiveness, we must acknowledge our mistakes—we must learn to say that we’re sorry. 

People say “I’m sorry” for a variety of reasons: when they didn’t hear someone and need them to repeat; when they are late for meetings; when they bump someone in the street; when they regret a mistake they’ve made. What does the word “sorry” mean to you? How often do you say it in your daily life? Do you mean it every time you say it?

Spend a day keeping track of how many times you say (or even think) “I’m sorry.” What were you really saying in those contexts? Are there different words that you could have used to express what you were feeling at those moments?

One popular piyyut (liturgical poem) written for the Selihot service is “Adon Haselihot,” “Lord of Forgiveness.” The chorus of the piyyut proclaims, “We have sinned before You — have mercy upon us!” What does the idea of “sin” mean to you? Is this a helpful concept in your life?

Adon Haselihot is written in the form of an acrostic, with each letter of the alphabet representing a name for the merciful, forgiving God. Why do you think it was written in this format? How does it help you to understand God more deeply?

Another popular seliha (poem for the Selihot service) is “Ben Adam Ma Lekha Nirdam.” This poem demands, “Human being, why do you sleep? Rise up and voice your pleas!” Are there parts of your life that you are “asleep” to? What pieces of yourself do you ignore because it is easier to do so than to confront them? How can you wake up to these issues?

When interviewed about forgiveness, Elie Wiesel said of the perpetrators of the Shoah, “No, I cannot. I cannot forgive [them].” In what situations is it impossible for you to forgive? Is it still important to you that perpetrators seek forgiveness in those contexts?

Some people differentiate “justice” from “mercy” by saying justice is getting what you deserve, while mercy is not getting what you deserve, but experiencing compassion instead. What does it mean for God to be merciful? What does it mean for you to be merciful — to yourself and to others? Which situations call for justice and which situations call for mercy?

For Families and Kids:

Is it hard for you to say you’re sorry, even when you know you’ve hurt someone? How do you learn to say sorry anyway?

Sometimes admitting that we’ve made mistakes makes us feel bad. Is it okay to feel bad sometimes? How do you remember that you are a good person even when you mess up?