Sisterhood Blog

Mechila Not Just For Women

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

This is the seventh in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.

I didn’t know about the custom of asking mechila — for forgiveness — when I was growing up. When I eventually learned about it, early in my career writing about religion, I thought it was a great concept. The message, after all, is a powerful one: We are responsible for rectifying the wrongs we have done, intentionally or not, that in any way hurt the people in our lives. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could see the value of asking for forgiveness. That is, until I started approaching people.

When I first began asking people for forgiveness, my request was usually met with graciousness and sometimes even thoughtful engagement, but one of the first people I approached was my boss at the time. Sincerely, perhaps naively, I asked if he would forgive me if I had done anything to hurt or offend him. His response was to laugh in my face.

Being neurotic, I of course thought it was because there was something wrong with my request. Years later, when I asked him about it, he said he laughed because he just didn’t know what to say. That was a relief; it was his limitation, not mine.

In the years since, I have refined my approach, and now limit it to the people with whom I am closest: family and dear friends.

Paired with 10 days of reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asking mechila sharpens my focus and my intention. It gives me an opportunity to think about the many things I’ve done wrong in the past year, and the chance to open up a conversation with the people I love about the slights and hurts I’ve caused them. It creates the opportunity to step back and evaluate how things are in each relationship, consider how I want them to improve and what I can do to create that change.

It’s like a chance for relationship re-set.

It’s also good modeling for my kids. Deborah Kolben writes that girls are acculturated to be more accommodating and apologetic than boys. She says that “as much as I want my daughter to know when it’s time to say ‘I’m sorry’ — I want equally for her to know when she doesn’t need to apologize and when it’s time for somebody to apologize to her.”

I see that girls default to apologizing far too often — it seems to start in the middle school years — and I work with my own daughters and other young women to help them understand that it is neither necessary nor healthy.

Accepting responsibility for wrongdoing should not be a gendered issue. But I have heard more than once from women a generation older than me that “men are different than women” — that I should not expect the same kind of self-awareness from men that I do from women. I heard from a Satmar woman, recently, that a man arrested for sexually abusing a teenage girl isn’t to blame “because she was troubled.” This acquaintance said that the girl may have tantalized him and that “boys will be boys.” This is a woman — perhaps living in a culture that teaches it — who has internalized to a dangerous degree the idea that women are somehow responsible for everyone’s failings.

Is being emotionally inept the reason that my boss laughed in my face? Definitely. Was it because he was a man? Perhaps, though I can think of a different boss, a woman, who could easily have done the same.

But the central message of asking for mechila is not about culture or different expectations of men and women. The days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time for a different kind of growth: to learn and, as parents, to teach that it is not either/or, that just because someone has hurt you doesn’t mean that you are free from taking responsibility for your own actions.

Mechila is about our potential as individuals — and our potential for being thoughtless and hurtful. Lord knows that people in each of our lives will continue to disappoint and hurt us. It is a lot easier to think about their failings than our own. This tradition is about our potential to grow, and to repair ourselves and our relationships. That supersedes gender.

By the time Yom Kippur arrives I will have sat, privately, with each of my children. I will name and apologize for the things I can recall that I have said or done that have hurt them. I will ask how I can do better and what they need of me in the coming year. And I will ask that they forgive me.

I’m not doing it because I’m female, and so it should not be expected of me more than it is expected of my husband or any of my children. I have done it because it is the right thing to do. Because I feel blessed to have this be part of the Jewish tradition. Because I want my children to appreciate its value. And because I do want them to forgive me, to start our new year in a positive way, with no resentment, no matter how small, interfering with our closeness.

It’s the least I can do. As their mother and as a Jew.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: apologize, motherhood, sisterhood, sorry, women, yom kippur

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.