The time of year between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is one in which Jews are called upon to evaluate themselves and their behavior over the past year. We seek forgiveness for offenses committed, aspiring to be better people. The traditional idea is that the gates of heaven are open to our prayers for redemption in the 10 days between the two holidays. This time is called Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. In preparation for the Days of Awe we are instructed to make amends to those whom we have offended.
It’s a beautiful tradition, this wrestling with oneself. Engaging in the hard work of redeeming our relationships to other human beings is a real challenge. Praying to the heavens above is often much easier than the rigorous self-inquiry and humility required in admitting we have erred. Both are required by Judaism, but I think the more challenging task is to ask for forgiveness from other people.
For years my leadership positions in both the business world and in Jewish political circles have made me face criticism, warranted and unwarranted, and I have committed offenses, intentional or not—it doesn’t matter—and had them committed against me. I am not unique in that regard; it is a universal human experience. Such inconsistencies are the nature of relationships, both personal and professional, and we all navigate them as best we can.
Although the High Holidays especially focus our intentions on repairing damage we have done, I begin every day with a mirror test. When I look at my reflection, I check to see if I’m happy to see my own face. If not, why? Have I hurt someone or made a mistake? I contemplate those questions, and if I have committed some damage, I try to make amends. The mirror test is how I keep myself honest.
Jewish text study offers further guidance for me through questions of ethics and justice to better understand my behavior and improve upon it. I utilize these texts as a user’s manual. The more I learn in contemplating my ethical questions, the more I care about making choices to help others. The Days of Awe are a time where I especially focus on these matters and set course to make the world a better place for the people to whom I am connected. Helping people on a grand level is not easy—people don’t love you because you help them, they often resent you because you can—but you know that you are obligated to help anyway. Asking for forgiveness in intimate relationships is much harder. The act of asking for such forgiveness in Hebrew is called t’shuvah, which literary translates as “return.” I think of t’shuvah as returning to the truth—a time to shed our illusions about the justifications we make to ourselves about why we’ve hurt others.
The company I headed for 23 years, Seagram, was a family business. Family businesses, while wonderful enterprises, come with their own set of complexities where there is little division between the personal and the political. My father built Seagram from the ground up, and my brother Charles and I were often placed against each other in competitive roles. It made our relationship tense for many years, each of us seeking our father’s approval as he compared us to each other. Although the growing divide between us was not technically either of our faults, I certainly acknowledge that as a young man I did little to make it better.
After our father died, I became the chief executive officer. Charles was my partner. Because of our history, at times I managed to treat him rather poorly, not consulting him on major decisions. Naturally, he resented it. Because I did not fully consult with my brother, or engage him on critical decisions, there were business deals and investment opportunities I misjudged and avoided because I didn’t want to have an argument with my brother.
Years later, when Charles and I were on good terms again, I apologized to him. That apology required complete honesty. Life would have gone on serenely for both of us without it, but I knew deep within myself that I needed to make amends. First, I had to acknowledge the truth to myself, and then own up to my brother. Even though I had not committed a grave sin against him, my lack of respect towards him and his judgment was something I needed to atone for. Sometimes even doing nothing is the wrong thing.
In my mind, the Days of Awe are not about heaven, but about focusing on our fellow human beings. The High Holidays encourage contemplation of injustice, even if seemingly small. I think God has nothing to do with this. Judaism allows people like me to question the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, and still feel fully identified as a Jew. It’s relatively easy to apologize to an invisible, unknowable deity. It’s much harder to face someone here on earth that you have hurt, and apologize. This type of responsible, ethical engagement with other people is, I think, the essence of being Jewish.
I will spend my Yamim Noraim thinking about people both close to me and far away whose lives I may be able to make better. Judaism, in my interpretation, is not about reciting certain prayers in a certain tune from a particular book at an appointed time and place, it is about ethical engagement with humanity. My hope is that more people will see Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time to consider how they participate in an ethical dialogue with the world at large. The example of t’shuvah can inspire people from all faiths and backgrounds to ask for forgiveness so that healing can begin.
Former chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is currently working on a book about Jewish peoplehood with journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson.