There is the Torah's view of teshuva, and there is the watered-down, user-friendly, non-threatening Western version, which has seeped into the Jewish world like so many other foreign concepts.
The Western version often goes something like this:
“I'm sorry you feel that way.”
“I'm sorry that you were hurt.”
“I'm sorry for what happened.”
These are all faux-apologies; one who says something like this is not expressing guilt or taking any responsibility. Something happened, or someone feels that something happened; what a shame.
These non-apologies are favorite devices of the corporate world. If you've ever contacted “customer service” at one of these companies, you know exactly what I'm talking about. They are trained to be unfailingly polite, while taking no responsibility for the nightmare they caused you and doing little to make it right. When you finally explode in frustration, they will say they are sorry you feel that way and ask if there is anything else they can assist you with. As if.
This is the time of year when everyone is apologizing to everyone else. The typical apology is something like “Please forgive me for anything I did that might have hurt you.” This is intended to be a simple, all-encompassing apology – and it's certainly better than nothing – but it's essentially a cop-out.
The next time someone offers such an apology, ask them if they have something specific in mind. Most likely they will react in one of two ways: they will be extremely flustered, or they will become defensive. After all, this is not how the script is supposed to go. They are supposed to offer a perfunctory apology devoid of feeling or substance, you are supposed to graciously say “of course” to clear their conscience, and then you are supposed to switch roles so it's even.
You're not supposed to ask what he is apologizing for. How rude of you to put him on the spot! He's not really apologizing; he's just going through the motions of some Yom Kippur ritual, and here you are acting like he owes you an apology! How dare you? You should apologize for that!
Furthermore, if you don't switch roles and ask him to forgive you for anything you might have done, it will be awkward. Once again you are making it seem like you have leverage in the relationship, for he is offering an all-encompassing non-apology and you are acting like you have nothing to apologize for. One non-apology demands another in return.
None of this makes any sense. If you know you didn't sin against someone, why bother with the non-apology? If you did sin against him, how can you not apologize for real? And if the non-apology is contingent on the other person offering one in return, how is the first apology an apology at all? A real apology is not a negotiation or a transaction; it is not dependent on the other person accepting part of the blame. You have to clean up your own mess, regardless of what the other person contributed to the mess or what they do about their share.
While the non-apology offers a convenient feeling of relief from guilt, it often impedes real apologies from taking place.
And there's the rub. There is a huge difference between a non-apology and a real apology. A real apology means admitting that you sinned against someone, expressing guilt and remorse, sincerely requesting forgiveness, and resolving to do better in the future. This is extremely difficult for most people to do. Not only are we admitting that we messed up, we are humbling ourselves before another person – quite possibly someone we resent. We are granting them leverage and moral superiority over us. We need them to accept our contrition, and we can't make them do it.
Most people probably go years at a time, Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur, without giving or receiving a true apology. They have been replaced by faux-apologies and non-apologies, which paper over the crime, circumvent true repentance, and prevent reconciliation.
Real teshuva is painful, by necessity. It requires one to humble himself and acknowledge that he has failed. He could have done better, he should have done better, and he is to blame, regardless of any mitigating circumstances. A real apology is an act of lowering oneself – or recognizing that his actual state is far lower than what he believed it to be – and it is therefore an act of greatness.
Non-apologies are not painful and require no recognition of actual wrongdoing, so they are not teshuva. If nothing actually changes, even in the moment, then there is no teshuva.
The beauty of real teshuva is that something actually changes. One who acknowledges wrongdoing and sincerely apologizes will indeed find it difficult in the moment, but only in the moment. He will then be elated, for he will be lighter and cleaner. The albatross that he was carrying with him, even if only subconsciously, will be removed. If the person he harmed is close to him, he will also enjoy an improved relationship, free of old resentments.
Furthermore, he will be far less likely to sin against people in the future. Knowing that an all-encompassing non-apology is essentially meaningless, he will sooner hold his tongue than lash out at someone and then have to apologize for real.
So not only does real teshuva cleanse the past, it trains us to improve our behavior in the future, if for nothing else than not to have to do teshuva again.
This is how the Yom Kippur repentance works. We read an exhaustive list of sins and take responsibility for them. Although it is easy for this to become rote, if nothing else it should remind us that this is the only way to do teshuva. We must acknowledge what we did. We did it. We are to blame.
Chazal teach us that Hashem's court is different than a human court. In a human court, if one pleads innocent he can work the system and get off the hook, but if he pleads guilty he will be punished. In Hashem's court, if one pleads innocent he is punished, but if he pleads guilty he will receive clemency.
We must apologize to those we wronged, in specific terms when applicable, without strings attached. If we harmed them in some way, we must rectify it however possible. We must experience some internal resistance to this humbling of ourselves before God and the person we wronged, after which we will experience elation from the sin being cast away.
This is real teshuva. There is neither substitute nor shortcut.
May we all merit to do real teshuva and clean the slate.