Teshuva - Unpacking Jewish repentance

We do not confess to rabbis; they are not Catholic priests, nor do they possess the power of absolution.

‘WE NEED to regret that the sin committed was a violation of our covenant with God.' (photo credit: PIXABAY)
‘WE NEED to regret that the sin committed was a violation of our covenant with God.'
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
The rabbis tell us we are judged on Rosh Hashanah. I honestly don’t know what that could really mean. We say it. We repeat it. We sing it. But how many of us really understand what is meant by that? Does God really sit down and inscribe people in the Book of Life? Why would God need a book? Why would God even need to judge?
I think the brilliance of the Jewish calendar is its ability to apportion a period of time to a specific theme and then do a deep dive on that theme. Of course, the lessons of freedom that Passover teaches us apply every day, all 12 months of the year. But having one holiday once a year is the best way to learn and appreciate its value.
The lessons of assimilation that we can gather from Hanukkah apply also throughout the year, but we cannot light candles every night. Nor can we get drunk every day and ponder God’s mysterious behind-the-scenes way like we do on Purim.
So, too, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This sacred time for reflection, introspection and teshuva is made possible by the fact that it is a small window of time out of the vastness of the year. Of course we should be spending every day in repentance and making amends, but it is just not how human beings are wired to operate. So we set aside one time during the year just toward that end.
As they say, “Every day is Mother’s Day,” but isn’t it nice that we have one particular day set aside to pause and mark that? So, too, with the High Holy Days. Their message should resonate with us 24/7, but the more human thing is to have one special time of the year dedicated to teshuva.
WHAT THEN is teshuva? Our Sages tell us that teshuva is a three-part process. The first is to regret the sin, the second is to confess it, and the third is to never do it again.
I think we should unpack this a little.
Let’s start with regret. One does not need to regret the sin itself. The sins are part of the mosaic of our lives. They made us who we are. We need to regret that the sin committed was a violation of our covenant with God. In other words, when we sin, we “hurt” God, and perhaps we are even hurting ourselves. Our regret is that... – that we violated the will of God.
The next step is to confess. We do not confess to rabbis; they are not Catholic priests, nor do they possess the power of absolution. We confess to God and God alone. It is with Him we need to repair the relationship.
The last step is to promise not to commit the sin again. While this sounds pretty straightforward, I think the best we can hope for is to promise to try our best to not to do it again. How often do we make resolutions to better our lives to only fail again and again? To diet? To exercise more? Too often we make well-intended resolutions that fail in practice. Our rabbis tell us that all we need is one small step of rapprochement toward God and we will find Him running toward us.
The incredible thing about this process is that it wipes the slate clean. It never happened. This is amazing when you think about it. If you get into a fight with a friend, he may forgive you, but it is highly unlikely he will ever forget. Injuries have their scars. But teshuva is quite literally the only thing in this universe that has repercussions for one’s future and one’s past. An opportunity to change the past is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God can give to us. This is why the Sages make such a big deal out of teshuva. They, too, cannot get over the chance to remake oneself and forge a better future.
One of the greatest obstacles to taking advantage of this gift is the feeling of hypocrisy. We feel inadequate and not up to the challenge. Or perhaps the enormity of the change that is needed dwarfs us and paralyzes us from taking the first step.
Advice I often give my students is baby steps. It is okay to do teshuva in one area, even while completely sinning in another. In other words, it is okay to do teshuva for Shabbat, while still not taking upon yourself to be careful about kashrut. Judaism isn’t an all-or-nothing religion. If there is too much that needs to be done, pick one thing, and focus on that. And after you’ve mastered that, you can then choose another and another. And so on, until you feel you are in the right place with both yourself and God.

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.