SMART apologies

The year of better apologies

In Short

Inspired by “SMART” goals - a model created by a trio of business consultants in the 1980s to help ground aspirations in reality - we have been piloting SMART apologies within our relationships in hopes of giving and receiving more powerful teshuva (repentance).

“If I have done anything to hurt you in this last year, I am sorry. I hope you forgive me.” 


Apologies are sacred and redemptive, and it’s time to relegate bad ones to the dustbin of history.

The Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah is preceded by Elul, which started this year on Aug. 26. It’s a month of reflection, where Jews take an accounting of our souls and of our relationships in search of repentance, repair and forgiveness. Yet over the years, the two of us have been offered apology after apology that left us feeling small…and have also given apologies that have left others feeling unseen. We’d like to change that.

This year, we’ve been learning from a broad range of thinkers, such as Harriet Lerner, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Rabbi Alan Lew, and 12th-century scholar Maimonides in hopes that we can offer more meaningful apologies this Elul.

As Dr. Harriet Lerner, author of Why Won’t You Apologize?, says, “We all unwittingly hurt each other, just like we’re hurt by others. So the need to give and receive apologies is with us until our very last breath. And when it’s done well, the apology is deeply healing.” 

Inspired by “SMART” goals — a model created by a trio of business consultants in the 1980s to help ground aspirations in reality — we have been piloting SMART apologies within our relationships in hopes of giving and receiving more powerful teshuva (repentance).

During this month of Elul, we invite you to join us in spending more time reflecting on apologies and how to do them well, inspired by both Jewish sages and the contemporary “SMART Goals” framework. 

S: Specific

Before starting an apology, have a clear vision of what you’re apologizing for. For example, “I’m sorry I broke the vase your mother gave you for your birthday,” or, “I’m sorry I joked about your relationship at the staff meeting yesterday.”  

Without specificity, you might end up with an, “I’m sorry for what happened” apology. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in a retelling of a story on forgiveness, reminds us: “I can’t forgive you if I don’t know what I’m forgiving.” If you think you hurt someone but you’re not clear on what or how, consider asking them and come prepared to listen. This requires some work in advance, but it will make your apology clearer, healthier and more impactful. 

M: eMpathic

This is your time to show that you see the other person’s pain, or can imagine how your actions may have harmed them. “It must have been so scary to think the car had been stolen when I took it without your permission.” Or, “It must have been unsettling to have been left without an answer about the promotion, when I promised you’d know by last week.” Better yet, ask about the impact of your actions. 

A: Accountable 

Accountability is saying “I did this.” Take, for example, these two apologies: I’m sorry you were hurt  and I’m sorry I hurt you. The first bypasses personal responsibility by using the passive voice. It also implies that their feelings rather than your actions are responsible for the rupture. Your apology should be about what you did.

Accountability is often the hardest part of apologizing. The moment you acknowledge that you did something wrong, it becomes real. But here’s the thing – unless you’re revealing a secret transgression, it’s likely been real for the person you hurt all along. Admitting it out loud allows the possibility to connect over a shared understanding of what happened and the role you played. While this is often the hardest part, it may also be the most powerful.

R: Reflective: Before you apologize, spend some time thinking. In his book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew argues that according to Judaism, “the only question worth asking about any conflict is this: What is my responsibility for it? How am I complicit in it? How can I prevent it from happening again?” An apology should not be your knee-jerk response to what happened, but the result of thoughtful reflection. 

T: True: You must be, well…sorry. Not only does this mean that you have to believe what you’re saying, but also that you have to make a good effort not to cause that same hurt again. If you don’t believe in your apology, neither will your recipient. Maimonides asked, if we’re presented with the same set of circumstances, to do the same actions over again, would we? True apologies help us set intentions to do things differently.

Elul is the time of cheshbon nefesh, of the accounting of the soul. The process can be overwhelming, and it’s not always clear where to begin. Rabbi Lew offers us one possibility: “What is the pain that is pressing on your heart right this moment? That’s what you need to make teshuvah about. You need to make teshuvah about your fractured mind and your fearful heart.”

We aren’t experts in apologies, repentance, or (for that matter) forgiveness. But we are both committed to making this Elul one in which our apologies are more full, more present and more healing to those we’ve hurt. And it’s our hope that if we all commit to this, the apologies we receive will be that much better as well. 

Lauren Cohen Fisher is lecturer in Jewish Studies and director of Jewish Student Life at Colby College.

Andrea Hoffman is the director of experience design and gatherings for the Center for Jewish and Israel Education at Hillel International.