top of page

You don’t have to be Jewish to love Yom Kippur

It’s Yom Kippur, people. How’s your

Day of Atonement going?

Standing the test of time, with roots reaching back centuries, atoning for harms done continues to thrive in the modern world in religion and philosophy, the social and psychological sciences, law and medicine, and even works of art.

(The Remorse of Orestes, by William Adolphe Bougeureau)

Religion and philosophy

Jews have so got it going on with the good apology. I’m talking Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, baby--an entire day devoted to the contemplation of wrongs committed, for which a person apologizes, seeks forgiveness, both human and divine, and tries to set things right.

Blogging for The Huffington Post, Rabbi Mark Wildes describes an approach called teshuvah, which is more than just ticking a box and crossing “atone” off your to-do list.

“Teshuva is not simply about guilt, or coming clean—ultimately it’s about shedding those barriers that block our true soul, revealing our true nature, and returning to the most elevated aspects of ourselves,” says Wildes.

In the Roman Catholic sacrament of Penance, or confession of sins to a priest, the priest administers absolution to the penitent, pending the completion of a few prayers and the resolution to “sin no more.”

It almost seems too easy, like a get-out-of-jail-free card. While I’ve never heard of a confessional directive to apologize, the the Catholic catechism states the need for three actions for forgiveness: repentance, confession, and the intention to make reparations.

The Qur’an describes the principle of tawbah, or repentance, which, like the Hebrew word “teshuva,” translates “to return.” In Islamic theology, the word denotes the act of repenting, atoning for, and forsaking our misdeeds. For a Muslim, it is regarded as a major gateway to rectifying his or her life.

While Buddhism may be more philosophy than religion, its wisdom and beliefs are practiced by those who strive to grow in goodness to achieve spiritual nirvana. Some practitioners cite the concept of mētta, or loving kindness, as an implicit command to correct wrongful behavior, expressing regret for the harm committed and resolving not to repeat the behavior.

Starting to see a pattern here?

Twelve-step recovery programs

In the dozens of programs of recovery from addictions and addictive behaviors that are based on the twelve steps developed in the 1930s by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), practitioners inevitably arrive at the requirement to apologize.

Nobody understands the need for a well-crafted apology like AA.

In a very real sense, recovering addicts know that their lives depend on the rigorous practice of all twelve steps, and that to shirk even a single one could spell a return to the addiction.

Business and leadership training

Brilliant minds and leaders of successful companies recognize that employee mistakes can cost billions of dollars and endanger lives. A growing trend in corporate employee training is learning how to apologize to customers. Starbucks uses the acronym LATTE (Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank, and Explain) to guide baristas in handling customer complaints.

Other companies send employees for empathic leadership training at a range of sources. All focus on the need for corporate executives (or IT guys or customer service reps) to learn how to connect with the end user, not only to handle dissatisfaction but also to express genuine concern and remorse when the individual or the corporation falls short.

Justice and law

Based on the idea that merely convicting and sentencing a criminal leaves out the most important part of the crime, the victim, the restorative justice movement declares that justice without restitution is unjust. Invisible scars can be healed by a meaningful, personal gesture between the perpetrator and the victim—a face-to-face apology, sometimes called a Victim-Offender Dialogue.

Blogging for the Wisconsin Law Journal, legal expert Anthony Cotton writes: "The [Victim-Offender Dialogue] approach humanizes the offender, which also aids in the healing process. It offers the victim a chance to learn more about why the crime occurred, and the victim can express directly how the offender’s conduct affected his or her family and loved ones."

In summary, you don’t have to be religious, mandated by the court, or enrolled in an employee training program to learn how to take responsibility for harms done with a good apology.

But today would be a great day to start.

Excerpted from Not Just Words: How a Good Apology Makes You Braver, Bolder, and Better at Life. Available in print and electronic formats at, Barnes & Noble, and wherever awesome books are sold.

bottom of page