How to Really Repent and Change on Yom Kippur
Text to a friend: “Hey pal, sorry if I’ve done anything to hurt you this year! Love you so much. Shana tovah xx.”
Friend’s response: “Back atcha! Happy new year to you too :)”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve sent or received a few similar texts yourself in the past few days? Something that implies, “I’m sure I messed up somehow… Sorry.”
There’s nothing wrong with sending apology texts, or using technology to connect with those far away; but for many, the High Holidays’ tradition of apologizing to those we have wronged has largely become a perfunctory gesture and that’s a shame. If properly understood and done right, this ritual actually has the power to manifest our raison d’etre.
Here’s why and how.
Change is not easy, but it is necessary. It is why we are here, and now is the time to do it.
Judaism teaches that the essence of each soul is a divine spark of the Creator — a pure force of light and giving. The Kabbalah teaches that our soul is surrounded by layers of “clippot” (layers) that block our true nature and give rise to our negative attributes. Our mission is to remove these clippot within us, in order to help perfect ourselves and the world around us (Tikkun Olam). As we remove these layers, we transform our personalities from being slaves to our egos and desires, to being givers and creators.
The great ethicist, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, once said, “It is easier to master the entire Talmud than to change just one aspect of your character.” Anyone who has studied even a single page of Talmud knows how dramatic that statement is.
It is hard to change, but the good news is that we are given tools to help us with this critical task. One of these tools lies is the current period of the Hebrew calendar, called the “10 Days of Awe” — the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the greatest spiritual opportunity exists for us to work on our character and behavior and become the people we were meant to be.
But how do we do this? There is a famous prayer we say during the High Holidays called “Unetaneh Tokef,” which provides the three tools we can use to accomplish this: teshuvah, tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (good deeds).
I want to focus on the first of the three things — teshuvah — because it is perhaps the most complicated and frequently misunderstood. It is typically translated as “repentance,” but it actually means “return.” Teshuvah is not simply about guilt or coming clean; ultimately, it’s about shedding those barriers that block our pure soul, revealing our true nature and returning us to the most elevated aspect of ourselves.
Again, how? These are lovely, lofty concepts, but we, as humans, need actual steps to take. Judaism gets that. One action-oriented tradition, as a way of performing teshuvah, is codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) as the act of asking forgiveness from those we have offended or wronged in some way over the past year.
Great, but easier said than done. How do we actually say we are sorry? How do we make sure we mean it, and that it’s not simply a performative token or gesture, but is rather a transformative act?
The late Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung summarized the great Maimonides’s approach to teshuvah and to securing forgiveness through “the 3 R’s”:
Recognition — One must first recognize and admit to the wrong-doing. This is the first step in all transformative programs. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, for example.
Remorse — One must feel bad about the wrong-doing. It is not enough to say you are sorry; you must feel it. We are not meant to linger in this state of sorrow, but we must go there in order to effect real change.
Resolve — One must commit to a new way of acting in the future, so as not to repeat the offense.
These 3 R’s and Maimonides’s whole approach have a strong parallel in today’s “positive psychology” movement. If you’re familiar with the work of Tony Robbins, you may notice the overlap. Robbins and others like him stress the importance of taking responsibility as a vital key to happiness and empowerment. When we stop blaming others and playing the victim, we are able to write our own story.
An exercise taken from this movement in psychology is to consider a relationship you’re in where there is tension. Maybe your roommate is driving you crazy because he never cleans, and you feel taken advantage of. Perhaps your significant other doesn’t make you feel important. Do you avoid talking to your mother because everything comes out as a criticism, and nothing is ever good enough for her? Ask yourself why things are the way they are, and notice how you automatically start to justify your own position and actions and come up with reasons the other is wrong.
The first step is to recognize that you get something from this. You get an ego boost; you get to be right, or maybe even righteous; you get to be a victim.; you get pity; you get energy from anger. Whatever it is, it’s something. Recognize it, and know that you are attached to it.
The next step is to recognize what you are giving up by engaging in these thought patterns. Are you missing out on true companionship with your roommate? Are you sacrificing real intimacy with your partner? Openness and warmth with your mother? Is the trade-off worth it? Probably not. Recognize that.
The next step is to realize that we can not change others; we can only change ourselves. But that is, after all, why we are here — to transform and reveal our true nature. So, even though our needs and complaints may be valid and should be acknowledged, they are not the source of our pain; our own attitude and state of being is. So, we should drop our story for a minute, as valid as it is, and instead of waiting for the other person to apologize for his or her part, and we should proactively take the next step. We get in touch with that person, and apologize for our part. We take responsibility, and we do it without any expectations of reciprocation from the other person.
Then, we declare a new way of being. If we’ve been self-righteous, we pledge to be more accepting of others. If we’ve been too dependent on our significant other for affection, we pledge to be more self-loving. If we’ve been interpreting all of Mom’s words as criticisms, we pledge to take a deep breath and step back before responding to Mom. We pledge to transform ourselves.
It’s hard to do teshuvah in a vacuum. To sit and reflect about how we want to be better hypothetically is likely not going to amount to much. The act of the apology, if done with integrity and effort, gives us a tangible, actionable way to transform. By outwardly taking responsibility, genuinely feeling remorse and committing to a new way of being, we are not only taking steps to repair a relationship with a loved one, we are fulfilling our Divine purpose. We are removing clippot. We are becoming the cause and not the effect. We are returning.