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Teshuvah and Repentance in the Jewish Tradition

The first thing to note in our discussion of repentance in the Jewish and Christian traditions is that it is possible to discuss it at all. We do not have to go through life bearing our past sins with us, as in the Hindu tradition. There our karma adheres to us throughout our lifetimes; only through reincarnation may we move beyond the errors of the past. Against that background the very possibility of teshuvah (atonement and forgiveness in Hebrew) takes on a different quality.

In order to understand atonement in the Jewish tradition we should review the Jewish concept of sin. Sin is not aboriginal. Rather, every human being is endowed with two human impulses: one calling us to the good and one pulling us in ways that can be called bad. This is articulated in Deuteronomy, chapter 30: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” We have the capacity to choose.

We as human beings are endowed with free will. The rabbis teach us, “Everything is in the hands of heaven; save the fear and reverence for heaven.” In the end, we make our own choices; sometimes they are the wrong choices. That is sin.

Sin is like an adjective that describes the quality of some of our actions. Etymologically, the word for sin is derived from archery; it means missing the mark.

In Jewish tradition, the consequences of sin are not ineradicable. Hence the role of teshuvah. We see the Jewish understanding of atonement during the High Holy Days, in what is in effect a penitential season. The high point of this penitential season is Yom Kippur.

The word “Kippur” provides a clue about the effect of atonement. Kippur is the same word used in describing Noahs building of the ark. He is instructed to cover the structure with pitch, making it watertight. Kippur is that word translated as “cover up.” When Noah covers up his structure he is not obliterating the strata underneath. Instead, he makes these layers irrelevant and inoperative. To atone is to cover up your back pages, seal them shut, make them irrelevant to the person you have become.

We are assured that God can be made susceptible to our plea for forgiveness. Tradition teaches that God has two natures: justice and mercy. This is the theme we hear in the liturgy of our High Holy Days when we address God as Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King. In this invocation of God the image of God as Father represents Gods attribute of mercy and the description of God as King evokes Gods attribute of justice. Through-out these days we plead with God to let mercy prevail.

One of the most serious dimensions of the Rosh Hashanah observance is the sounding of the shofar, the rams horn. We have explained this practice by referring back to the Genesis story of the binding of Isaac, which is read during the Rosh Hashanah service. In this story we find a ram offered to God instead of Abrahams son, Isaac, whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice.

The rabbis tell a story of a king lost in a forest who was saved by a woodsman. In gratitude, the king takes his savior to the palace, gives him splendid living quarters, lavish food and regal clothing. But the king admonishes him: “whenever you really need something from me, wear the clothes you were wearing when you saved me.” In telling this story, the rabbis instruct us, we sound the rams horn to remind God of the faithfulness and steadfastness of our ancestors. We mobilize Gods will to forgive.

We also note that God is quick to forgive. The story of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur afternoon, illuminates Gods desire to forgive. Jonah understood this about God and therefore did not want to warn the Ninevites. Either he did not wish to be sent on a fools errand or he did not want to be the savior of his own peoples enemies.

Even more, God wants us to atone. Throughout our High Holy Day liturgies we hear the statement, “God desires not the death of sinners, only that they should turn from their evil ways and live.”

There is a story about the son of a king who journeyed a distance of a hundred days from his fathers palace. His friends said to him: “Return to your father.” But he answered them: “I cannot.” Then his father sent a message to him: “Come as far as you are able and I shall come the rest of the way to you.” Similarly, the rabbis tell us that the Holy One, praised be He, says to Israel: “Return to me, O Israel, and I will return to you.”

Jewish tradition offers specific mechanisms for repentance. Obviously we have moved beyond the sacrificial system where we place our sins on an animal and let it perish with those sins.

No creature dies for our sins; we must endure the process ourselves. Jewish tradition teaches that tefillah, tzedakah and teshuvah – prayer, charity and repentance – avert the severity of the decree.

Here we examine repentance. Teshuvah begins with acknowledgment. We have to see our sins, failings and shortcomings for what they are. We should recognize ourselves as flawed. This may be the hardest step of all for until we see ourselves more clearly we cannot proceed to what comes next.

The next step is confession. We must confess to God and to the people we have wronged who we have been. In this confession we need to be direct, honest and explicit. If we are becoming new people we have to be completely candid about the people that we were.

The following step is to right our wrongs, or make restitution. In one text, Mishna Yoma, Jews are taught, “For sins against God, prayer atones. For sins against people, prayer does not atone.” We must deal with the ones that we have wronged and right the injury inflicted on them.

This step of making restitution is not acted out in the realm of theory. Nor is it between us and third parties. We have to apologize directly to the people whom we have wronged.

Of course, it is not easy to forgive; something in us likes to hold on to our hurts. So we are taught imitatio Dei. Just as we want God to forgive our offenses, so we have to forgive those who offend us. Our tradition teaches that when someone sincerely asks our forgiveness we must forgive.

There is one last step. We have to make an active commitment not to commit that sin again. We have become new people in a kind of metanoia.

Teshuvah is a difficult and profound process:

Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world.
Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the throne of glory.
Great is repentance, for it brings about redemption.
Great is repentance, for it prolongs our years.
Great is repentance, since for the sake of one individual who repents the whole world is forgiven.

Rabbi Polish is the rabbi of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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