This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Repentance within the Ten Days of Repentance linking Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. It derives its name from the first word of the Haphtarah for this week:
שׁוּבָה, יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
“Shuvah Yisrael – Return (Repent), O Israel, for you have stumbled in your iniquity!”
Teshuvah (Returning/Repenting) is not easy. But not only is it possible, it is imperative, lest we forfeit what makes us human – our ability to change. Teshuvah is a process that has prescribed steps. Here is a list of steps, based largely on the writings of Maimonides:
- Awareness – I bring to mind something which I did or said that I realize should not have been done or said.
- Regret – I feel remorse for having done what I did.
- Confession – I put into words what I have done, thus giving the thought reality. There are prayers of confession every day – I don’t have to wait until Yom Kippur.
- Admission – I come to you, admit and accept responsibility for what I have done.
- Restitution – When possible, I make up for the damage that I have done.
- Ask forgiveness – I ask you to forgive me. If you refuse to forgive me, I need to come back to you two more times and ask. If after the third request you still refuse to forgive me, then I have done all I can and now you are guilty of the sin of cruelty. And remember, you can forgive without forgetting, and forgiving does not necessarily mean restoring trust.
- Change my behavior – I do not repeat what I did before. Maimonides gives a graphic example of which I will give a PG version: I am in the same room with the same person, have the same ability, feel the same desire, yet do not act as I had before (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuvah,” 2:1).
- Pray for God’s forgiveness -The last step in the process of my repentance is to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and ask for God’s forgiveness for what I have done. I know that I cannot ask God’s forgiveness on the Day of Atonement until I have done right by those against whom I have sinned (Mishnah Yoma 8:9), yet having done all of the above, I still need to ask God for forgiveness. That is because a sin against any other of God’s “human images” is seen as a sin against God, a “spark” of Whom is in every person.
- Forgive myself – Maimonides does not mention this additional step, but it is as important as it is difficult. Having gone through the process of sincere repentance and reparation, I reflect back with gentle understanding at the person I was when I committed the act and I forgive that person, knowing that I am not a person who would do that anymore. I am defined, not by what I have done wrong, but by my efforts to improve and act in ways better than the person I used to be.
In one of the earliest Midrashic collections, Genesis Rabba, the Rabbis enumerated six creations that God created or envisioned before creating the world (Beresheet 1:4). This was based on a play on the first word which the Rabbis read as bara shayt which, in Aramaic, means “created six.” After listing six things, including the Torah which God would use like an architect’s drawing to create the world, Rabbi Ahava ben Zeira added a seventh: Teshuvah. In listing Repentance as being conceived even prior to creation, Rabbi Ahava (which means “love”) was saying that God knew that we humans were sometimes going to fall into sinning and would need a way to get back up. It is like God creating the safety net prior to creating trapezes, knowing that the humans who swung on those trapezes would sometimes fall. God built repentance into the fabric of creation so that human beings – who, not being born as sinners, still had the potential to sin -would always have a way to recover from their mistakes and become better.
On Yom Kippur we will gather before the Loving One in search Divine forgiveness. Having done our part in the process of teshuvah, we will know that all we will have to do is ask, as it is written, “I have forgiven as you have requested” (Numbers 14:20).
G’mar chatimah tovah – May you and your loved ones be inscribed for a New Year of health, happiness, growth, peace and love.
Rabbi Don Rossoff