Friday, September 17, 2010

The Execution, If Not the Spirit, Of Atonement

Years ago, I worked as the office manager for local Jewish couple in their home-based business. And that home was beautiful: rustic, nestled into the woods, with a million-dollar view. The surroundings–and the equally calming pace of the work–filled me with a joy that I never experienced in any other job.

My work tasks, however, were not always so calming. One of my bosses could have a temper and made micromanagement an art form. Our skill sets and adaptation styles, as they say in human resources management, did not mesh particularly well. But I’d take a deep breath and soldier on. I needed the money, I needed the benefits, I definitely needed one big fat perk they offered me: if I was caught up with my tasks and the phones weren’t busy, they encouraged me to work on my novel. And where else are you going to find that, with Jewish holidays off, to boot?

After I’d been there a couple of years, the husband started a new business. Since this venture was product-based, and it was brilliantly innovative, launching the business required a lot of work. For him, and by extension, for me. I made a lot of breathless runs to UPS. I stayed late to type memos and proofread proposals he brought to my desk at 4:45 and absolutely needed to have done before I left. I helped him develop what became not just a great selling product, but a book as well, with virtually zilch appreciation. (But I’m grateful he did take the time and space to thank his cats in the book’s acknowledgments.)

Look, I don’t need a lot of praise, and I’m not here to whine. I’m fairly low maintenance, I’m an independent self-starter, but once in a while, just a little thanks for a job well done? Please? One day he even blew up at me for not thanking profusely enough a woman who had rushed to get one of his products made. “You have to make this right,” he said to me, repeating the phrase several times, each time louder than the last and with more expansive hand gestures.

The normally calm air tightened between us.

Then the eve of Yom Kippur arrived. I was closing up the office for the night when he poked his head in the door and said, “Whatever I did last year, I’m sorry.”

I blinked at him, too stunned to reply. Only later did I get angry. This man prided himself on his wholehearted re-embracement of his Judaism and overall spirituality. He meditated daily. He belonged to study groups, men’s groups, chanting groups. On Fridays he and his wife donned their tallis shawls, picked up the loaves of challah I had called the bakery to reserve, and performed a Shabbat service at a local nursing home. I couldn’t reconcile his spirituality and good deeds with why I only rated a blanket apology.

While I was never a practicing Jew (it’s my birthright, not my preference), I’m familiar with the intention of Yom Kippur. I love the idea of setting aside a day to reflect upon the past year in the hopes of bettering the treatment of your fellow human and yourself. In fact, he was the only person who has ever apologized to me – blanket or otherwise – during Yom Kippur.

Perhaps I should be grateful. Maybe that was the only way he knew how to apologize, but it was, in its own way, an offering. His example was a reminder to be more accountable for my own behavior, because who among us is perfect?

So on this Yom Kippur, not only am I sorry for whatever I did to you last year, I’m sorry for whatever I’ll do to you this year, too.


  1. Great post! And by the way, whatever I did during the past year, I'm sorry.