Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on Making Amends to Someone Who Can’t Hear Your Apology
"We can’t ever do this hard work alone."
We all have regrets. We rarely decide to do something about facing them. And usually, when we do, it’s to make amends to someone who we harmed who is still alive.
A couple of years ago I decided to take up the work of repentance and repair to someone who had long since lost the capacity to forgive.
I had been spending the previous few years immersed in Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. Maimonides was a 12th-century physician, philosopher and Torah scholar who took ideas found scattered around various parts of the earlier Rabbinic corpus and organized them in a more systematic way, with his own additions and flourishes. One of his great innovations as part of this compilation—the Mishneh Torah, it’s called—is the Laws of Repentance.
There, he lays out a whole framework for accountability and amends, for addressing and repairing harm to whatever degree possible—for transformation. I’ve always been a fan of this part of his work, and after teaching it over the years, I began deeply digging into it a few years ago when people began coming to me with questions about how to understand harmdoers’ obligations.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to spend time studying the Laws of Repentance and not think about the things in one’s life that haven’t been said; to look at the places where harm was caused and to see how amends have not been made; to try to find the places where things feel broken by my own actions and to try to heal them.
The thing is, sometimes the people to whom repair work is owed are not able to receive it.
Maimonides thought of that. For a while, as I immersed myself in his Laws of Repentance, I found myself circling around this passage:
One who committed a sin against a friend, and the friend died before the person who did harm asked for forgiveness, should bring ten adults to witness at [the harmed person’s] grave and there say: “I have sinned against God and against this person (naming them), and I have done against them thus and such (naming the sins).
Ten, in Judaism, is a quorum. When the person harmed has died cannot speak for themselves, confessing harms publicly is no longer merely “praiseworthy,” it is a requirement.I told these 10 witnesses the story of my regret and shame. I showed them a place of pain and remorse that I had been holding for 25 years.
Eventually, at some point, I realized what I needed to do. With that nauseous feeling of foreboding and dread, I emailed ten dear friends—all of whom would (as they were both Jews and non-relatives) fit the Jewish legal definition of a witness—and told them I would need their help.
My mother told me that she had cancer three weeks after I got to college. At the very least, she had suspected, if not already knew, it already as we drove across the country and while she helped me move into the dorms—but it was something that she carried alone. She had a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation, and then, later, a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. She got better. And then, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, they found out the cancer had metastasized.
I came back from a summer away to be with her; somewhere in there it was explained to me that there was no saving her and that she didn’t have a lot of time. It was important to my mom that I return to school, so I spent that fall flying back and forth between my school in Providence and our home in Chicago, and a few days after I got home from finals in mid-December, the doctors told me that it was time to set up hospice.
My parents had divorced a few years earlier, so the team of us entrusted with her care included me, my aunt, my mother’s best friend, and, a week or so later, my 24 year-old brother, who took a leave of absence from work to come home. Mostly it was on me and my brother to manage her meds for the pain and the meds for the side effects of the other meds and to try to get her to eat or at least drink a protein shake and to help her get to the bathroom and all of the other things that hospice demanded.
It was, needless to say, emotionally, psychologically, psychically hard in every way. There were a couple of terrifying nights when she was in real pain from the cancer or from the side effects of the medication, and my brother and I would scramble to call the on-call nurse for advice.
And then, one night, she was in so much pain—howling with pain—that we (following the telephone nurse’s recommendation) called, I think, an ambulance. Trauma plays funny games with your memory; there are pieces of that night I can’t quite place. We got to the hospital, they stuck a feeding tube up my mother’s nose and into her throat—she experienced it as harrowing and terrifying, and there was nothing I could do but watch my sick parent suffer and be afraid. And then they got her to her hospital room.
It was New Year’s Eve that night. My friends from high school and I had tickets to some ska concert. My brother was supposed to go to some party. And my mother—in pain, frightened, and dying, told us that it was New Year’s Eve and that we should go out, go be with our friends, go have our plans.
For years, my greatest shame and regret in life was that I went. That I left my mother alone—suffering, gravely ill, in a hospital room—because I wanted to run away from so much pain. I should not have left her alone that night in that hospital room. I simply should not have.
And I carried that shame and regret with me for 25 years and counting, balled up and shoved down like an anxious, angry whisper. It felt like the worst part of me, the most selfish, mean part of me. It is a secret I told a few people over the years, but it has been a secret, nonetheless.
I decided it was time to act on Maimonides’ command during the earliest days of the COVID pandemic, so neither going to my mother’s actual gravesite halfway across the country nor gathering in person were possible. However, I felt that, given the extenuating circumstances, we could try to do our best on Zoom.
It was deeply emotional just to see all of these people, who were my people from different corners of my life, together in this way, showing up for me. And then I told these 10 witnesses the story of my regret and shame. I showed them a place of pain and remorse that I had been holding for 25 years.
And even as I told it, I was able to find a little more compassion for myself in the doing. I could see how 20-year-old me was frightened and overwhelmed and, if we respond to stress with fight, freeze or flight, I chose flight. I could recognize how desperate I was for the respite of a normal night out doing normal college-age things, how scared I was. I could acknowledge that I was there for her the next day, and for the next six weeks of her life, that I was there with her when she died. But most of all, I could name clearly, without flinching, what I did and the regret I held: not as something horrific and unspeakable, but as a true thing, a fact of my actions in the world.
I did harm that night, I believe. And I have to own that and live with it. (Am I being too hard on myself? Am I holding myself, and thus others, to an impossible standard? I’ve been told that I am. But right now, I am a daughter, telling the story about her mother, and all I can tell you is the truth that I have.)
But also, as I told this story, as I named the true thing, the true thing about leaving a terrified, dying woman alone in her hospital room, the faces of my friends—my witnesses—held me, as I lifted my darkness up to the light and said, here, yes, look at this thing that I did. And their faces held me as I cried my way through it and named my bitter regret and the fact that I can never ask my mother for forgiveness for not showing up and sticking through it on a night that was so scary and hard.
And then, after I was done telling my story, something else happened. My friends offered me some other ways to think about what had happened. Perhaps this was my mother’s way of taking her last opportunity to mother us, to release us from something she knew was hard. Perhaps it was her way of asserting a small amount of agency despite all the ways in which she had lost her autonomy that night, that month, that year. Perhaps by doing what she asked we were honoring her need to control the narrative for a bit. Perhaps she was sick of being a patient to her caretaker children and wanted some space alone.
Perhaps we were trapped in an unsolvable mother-daughter feedback loop wherein, as a mother, she wanted to see me thrive and happy because she was a mother and that’s some of what mothers do. I mean, you know, maybe. I’ll never know what she experienced that night. I was too self-centered, or too afraid, to ever ask her about her experience of being alone in a hospital room, a tube up her nose and other tubes in her arm, knowing that she was in the final phases of her life.
Another friend, after recounting this whole story via email, wrote back with another perspective:
it is SUPER important to get community witness and name the sense that you had done harm. But when you put the story out without saying explicitly that maybe there was no way NOT to be part of a vicious whirlwind of harm in that moment, then you may also be holding others to an impossible standard of not-doing-harm. So I think it may be important to consider those who are likewise trapped, and be gentle with yourself so as to be gentle and fair with them too.
I don’t think that Maimonides demands that we own the harm that we caused publicly at the grave of the dead so that other people can help us find ways to let ourselves off the hook, out of the cage of our own shame. I think that it’s because witnesses are holding the truth in trust for the dead, because the dead cannot speak for themselves anymore. But perhaps I’m also not the first penitent to be offered a little compassion while weeping at the grave—literal or proverbial—of the person to whom forgiveness can never be begged.
I still think I made the wrong choice. But there is some openness in my experience now and the possibility of other voices—the awareness that, if nothing else, I do not have a full understanding of the picture. And most of all, I have shone some light on this dark thing, and acknowledged that it is there, and let others see it. My choices can only be evolve as a result of revealing what I have hidden for so long and saying: yes, this choice that I regret is part of who I am, but it does not have to be part of who I will always be.
In normal situations, I believe that the repentance process in Judaism—with the elements of public confession, beginning to change, amends, apology, and making different choices—is profoundly victim-centric. Amends and apologies do not happen at harmed people, but, in many or most cases, in relationship with them. The process can be an opportunity for the harmdoer to both own their actions and to also to get outside of their own perspective and comprehension of what happened; to understand their impact more deeply.
But all the emphasis in my tradition around public confession, around bringing witnesses to the amends process, is not to put people in the stocks, to shame them for their choices, but to help to shine a light. To help give the darkness air and space. To clean out the wound so that healing might be possible. To say: yes, this is a choice that I made, this is the harm that I caused. This happened, it’s true. I want desperately not to be the kind of person who does that harmful thing, so in part I am asking for your help to accompany me on this journey, so that I can begin to become different. See me now: Witness not only my regret, but my commitment to becoming a different kind of person. Help me to become an agent of healing in the world. I can’t do that on my own. I need your compassionate help. Your loving eye. Your accountability on my journey of amends and transformation.
It is about inviting others to witness the process of growth and healing. Of choosing to leave behind who we have been and asking for accompaniment on the road to becoming different.
We can’t ever do this hard work alone.
Even if the person to whom we truly owe a debt can never be repaid.
On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Danya Ruttenberg is available via Beacon Press.