“Excuse me,” the woman behind me said in an accusatory fashion.
I had just rejoined my mother in line. She was talking to the cashier, and I had walked in front of the woman in back of her in order to help my mother out. As a child, getting back in line with my mother was considered cute. But now, as a young adult, people are always accusing me of cutting them off.
“I’m with her,” I said, motioning to my mom.
“You are so rude,” the woman bellowed.
“You are so rude,” the woman bellowedI turned around and looked at this blonde 30-something. She was wearing stiletto heels and a leather skirt. Her gaze on me was as tight as her outfit. Her mouth was as stiff as her hairspray.
“Huh?” I questioned innocently.
“You went in front of me without saying ‘Excuse me.’ You have no manners,” she proclaimed.
How could someone say that to me? I thought. I took cotillion as a child. I took etiquette classes in college. I was a classy lady.
I convinced myself that this woman couldn’t possibly have all this anger towards me simply because she thought I cut her in line.
I thought about all the other reasons that she could be irritated. Maybe she was just fired from her job. Possibly her fiance just dumped her. Maybe her outfit was uncomfortable. Perhaps my supposed cutting her in line was just the thing to drive her over the edge.
The words of Hillel entered my head: “Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”
I would want someone to care about my feelings. I would like people to give me a break once in a while. But I don’t always give people the benefit of the doubt. My instinctive reaction of defending myself usually overrides rational thought.
I weighed my options. On the one hand, I could get angry with this woman and put her in her place. That’s the reaction she was probably expecting from me.
On the other hand, there is so much anger in the world already; I didn’t want to add another teaspoon to the mix. Maybe I wouldn’t change the world with a positive response. But it certainly would be worth a try.
Conceivably, my approach to the matter came because of my reflection that it was soon going to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement or forgiveness. It is a day where the Jewish people pray that our slate of sins be wiped clear. We ask G‑d if we can start anew and promise to do better in the year ahead.
One thing that G‑d cannot fix during Yom Kippur is the hurt we cause others. For that, we have to apologize to them. Today was as good a time as any to start.
“I’m so sorry you felt that way,” I said, in a voice I imagined could make a rock become smooth.
“Well, you should be sorry,” she responded in a chastising manner.
This was not the reaction I was expecting. I was trying really hard to be patient. I discreetly breathed in and out to calm myself. She was not making this easy for me.
I looked inside myself and thought again. If I got mad now, it would be built up from my first encounter with this woman. If I could do that, I thought, it meant I hadn’t truly forgiven her. The fact that I felt angry with her for not forgiving me the first time showed that I was still thinking about myself and not really being sensitive to her feelings. Perhaps her not forgiving me was a sign that I had not forgiven her either.
The other person forgiving you is not enough; you also have to be truly sorry for what you didBefore Yom Kippur, we ask people to forgive us. But the other person forgiving you is not enough; you also have to be truly sorry for what you did. I had unintentionally hurt this woman. I was not sensitive enough to acknowledge her before I ran in front of her. I needed to try to be more aware of others. I needed to become a more sensitive human being.
“I am so sorry,” I said softly, “Is there anything I can do to fix the situation?”
“No, there’s nothing you can do!”
“Well, let me know if you change your mind,” I said, gently. Then I turned around.
I felt frustrated that she was not accepting my apology, but at the same time, I felt a sense of inner peace. At least I had tried to apologize. At least I had tried to do damage control. At least I had cared for another person’s needs besides my own.
I watched the blonde lady out of the corner of my eye, as my mom and I finished checking out. Her arms uncrossed. Her eyes glazed as if they were far off somewhere. Her smug face became contemplative.
We had to walk by her on our way out of the store. Only two steps away from her, I felt a tense hand touch my shoulder. I turned around.
She looked me in the eye. “I am so sorry,” she said sincerely.
There was serenity in the air. Time stopped for a moment. Suddenly, all the problems of the world went away. Perhaps we were just two small people in a world of millions, but right here, right now, we understood each other.
So often we judge people based on a single incident with them. I may never know why she acted so harshly with me before. I do know that if I had reacted back in the same way, I would never have seen this side of her.
“I really overreacted,” her tone was very apologetic. “I hope you can forgive me.”
“No hard feelings,” I said kindly.
I was in awe of the power of forgiveness. “I’m sorry” is the most magical phrase that can ever be uttered. It is the bridge between war and peace, and the building block to the survival of humanity.