Shortly before the High Holidays a number of years ago, I was teaching my 6th grade Hebrew school class about teshuvah—repentance. Everything was going really well as I explained why repentance is important and how repentance is an integral part of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur preparation.
Towards the end of the class, a slow and disturbing realization started to wash over me. I stopped and asked,
“By the way, does anyone happen to know what the word ‘repentance’ means?”
My question was met with a classroom full of glassy-eyed stares.
Teacher of the year I’m not.
But I think that story could apply to many of us. While I’m sure that most of us can in fact define the word, relatively few of us truly understand what repentance is, even though we use the term repeatedly over the course of the High Holidays.
Most people would describe repentance as the act of apologizing. While that’s certainly part of it, saying that you’re sorry is only the beginning.
You might go further and point out that in addition to seeking forgiveness, there must be an element of making amends.
But how do you do all that? To whom do you apologize? Do you attend services, recite some prayers, and you’re covered? In fact, Judaism recognizes that there are two different paths that our sins can follow: ways in which we have sinned against God, and ways that we have wronged other people. Performing teshuvah is not a one-size-fits-all process.
It might be common this time of year to have people say to you, “If I’ve done anything to offend or hurt you over the past year, please forgive me.” That’s a well-meaning gesture, but ultimately does very little to put you on the road to repentance. You’ve taken no risk, you’ve undertaken little reflection, and you’ve effected no change. It often reminds me of when politicians make some inappropriate comment, succumb to public pressure, and say, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I said.”
The true act of repentance means identifying where you’ve gone wrong and apologizing and making amends for specific acts. But wait, you’re not done yet. Ultimately, the true test of repentance is whether or not you’ve permanently changed your behavior and choices so you don’t repeat the actions.
I’m always fascinated by people’s stories of teshuvah and reconciliation. Do you have a story to share?