As Yom Kippur nears, there are two traditional things celebrants say to each other. G’mar chatima tova and g’mar tov. Careful readers will note that the three-word and two-word expressions are similar! And both can tell us something instructive about saying sorry.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur urge us to ponder how we’re going to do better in the New Year (5778, for those keeping score at home). We’re supposed to apologize to those we’ve wronged — human, divine, self — as an important step in starting anew.
You can’t simply start over. Jews do not do the whole clean slate thing. Have you met us? We revel in guilt and ambiguity. Before we can start again, we have to finish what we’ve left undone. G’mar tov means, literally, “finish well.” It’s what we say as the metaphorical gates of heaven are beginning to close, as the chance for tying up loose ends disappears. G’mar chatima tova literally means “good finished sealing” — idiomatically, it means “may you be inscribed for good,” as in, “may God write your name in the Book of Life,” which, y’know, heavy, man. The tradition holds that one’s name is written on Rosh Ha’Shanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
According to the delightful Balashon: The Hebrew Language Detective, g’mar, the word for finish, is related to the word g’mal, which means to ripen or wean. Ripening and weaning are both kinds of finishing. A ripened fruit has finished growing; it’s become full and complete. A weaned baby has begun the process of being self-sustaining; no longer being dependent on breast milk is the first step to becoming self-supporting, self-nourishing.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see that finishing something unfinished, achieving fullness and completeness, and feeling self-nourished are all connected to the art of apology. When we apologize well, despite the difficulty, we gain all these good things.
Not so incidentally, g’mar also means “to learn.” (Fellow Jewish Day School grads will recall studying the Gemara.) The etymology makes sense: When you learn, you deduce. You complete a chain of ideas and reasoning. You finish hearing or seeing or reading a thing, and you begin processing what you’ve heard or seen or read.
Again, hello: Apology-relevant. Good apologies have a learning curve. Coming to the conclusion that yes, you really should apologize, is its own deductive and logical act. (Pondering why good apologies are so darn rare, when WE ALL KNOW HOW TO DO THEM, COME ON, is a learning experience in and of itself.)
Happy New Year and g’mar tov to our friends who swing that way. Love, humility and justice to everyone, year-round.
Oh! And! If you want to hear Snarly talking about apology on the Unorthodox podcast two years ago — she forgot to share it then, sue her — you can! If you’d like to read some musings about the dangers of self-forgiveness — such a friggin’ buzzword right now, and a concept that has its place but NOT TOO MUCH OF A PLACE, PLEASE, go here. And you might or might not wish to ponder some smart musings about whether to forgive Trump voters, involving MORE SPLENDID HEBREW LINGUISTICS! (The word mechilah, to forgive, is related to the word machol, dance…as author David Ingber tells us, forgiveness is a dance; “a process, not an event.”) The piece is much more nuanced than you might expect. Which is good, since Snarly’s non-nuanced, immediate reaction to the suggestion she forgive Trump voters is MAY YOUR FACE BE SEALED IN THE BOOK OF SHUT-UP.