It takes two to do teshuvah

The stages of teshuvah include recognizing what you did wrong, feeling genuine regret, undoing any damage done, resolving not to do it again, and being forgiven by the person who was wronged.

Jewish thinkers throughout the centuries have explored the meaning of teshuvah (translated as “repentance” or “return”). Rambam described teshuvah as a personal transformation, as if one says, “I am now another person, and not that person who perpetrated those misdeeds.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook believed that it was returning to oneself, while Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik described it as recreating oneself.

Regardless of what teshuvah means in theory, how can you put these lofty ideas into practice? Whether you are the person asking for forgiveness or in the position to forgive someone else, use these insights to guide your own teshuvah during the 10 Days of Repentance (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Background on teshuvah

Before you take part in this powerful practice, here is some information you need to know. 

  • It takes two to do teshuvah. There are two major types of transgressions in Judaism: transgressions against God and transgressions against other people. One of the main principles of teshuvah and atonement is stated in the Mishnah: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person.” In other words, the party who was wronged must grant forgiveness for the wrongdoing. At the same time, in most cases, the aggrieved party has a responsibility to forgive eventually. Jewish law states that the person who did wrong should ask for forgiveness up to three times, after which the person is no longer considered accountable for the wrongdoing.
  • Through teshuvah we can influence our fates for the coming year. The High Holiday liturgy (Unetaneh Tokef prayer) states: “U-teshuvah u-tefilah u-tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezeira,” “But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” This refers to the belief in Jewish tradition that our fates for the coming year are written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. We all hope that we will be inscribed in the “Book of Life,” and it is thought that teshuvah is one way we can influence that.

When should you “repent”?

It is always a good idea to make amends with those we may have hurt and to let go of grudges; therefore, teshuvah can be done any time of year. The Talmud (Shabbat 153a) underscores that we should not wait until the High Holidays (or some other time in the future) to ask forgiveness of those we have wronged:

Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.”

His disciples asked him, “Does then one know on what day he will die?”

“All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow”

Although teshuvah can be done at any time, the practice is most associated with the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (10 Days of Repentance). In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (his magnum opus and code of Jewish law), he explains that the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah is an auspicious time for repentance: “Although repentance and prayer are always effective, they are even more effective during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah when they are accepted immediately” (Hilchot Teshuvah/Laws of Repentance, 2:6).

Step one: Heshbon Hanefesh

Teshuvah starts with heshbon hanefesh (literally, “an accounting of the soul”) — this is a practice of introspection and reflection about where we fell short in the past year and how we can improve our behavior in the coming year. Heshbon Nefesh is a main theme of the Hebrew month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and it continues to be critical during the 10 Days of Repentance which is a time of further contemplation and self-examination.

Teshuvah starts with assessing yourself honestly and objectively. Here are a few questions that you can use to undertake your own heshbon hanefesh:

  1. How do you want to be remembered? (List 3-5 qualities)
  2. “Time management” has become a buzzword but it is so much deeper than that. Consider the following priorities. How are you currently spending your time? How could you reallocate your time to better align with your priorities.
    • Work
    • Health
    • Family
    • Significant other
    • Jewish or other learning
    • Prayer / Meditation / Spiritual Practice
    • Hobby or hobbies
    • Best friends
    • Mitzvot (studying Torah, Shabbat candles, giving tzedakah, going to services)
  3. Look at this list of values and choose 2-3 that most resonate with you. How could you express those values more in your life?
  4. Who has helped you this year? Who have you helped?
  5. Who has hurt you this year? Who have you hurt?
  6. Who do you want to hear “I’m sorry” from? Who will you ask for forgiveness from?
  7. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the “bad” things that happen to us do not have consequences that are only bad, but there are usually some silver linings. For the times when others hurt you, what were the silver linings or lessons learned?
  8. What do you most want to work on this year? What’s one strategy you will use to create that change? How will you hold yourself accountable?

How to ask someone for forgiveness

It goes without saying that it takes courage and vulnerability to ask someone for their forgiveness. They may get angry at you when you raise the situation, share more about how you hurt them, or say that they are just not ready to forgive you. However, the upside is that if they do forgive you, it can transform your relationship, and even if they don’t forgive you, you can at least know that you did your part.

The stages of teshuvah include recognizing what you did wrong, feeling genuine remorse, undoing any damage done, resolving not to repeat the transgression, and obtaining forgiveness from the person who was wronged. Here are some tips for asking someone for forgiveness following this tradition:

  • Acknowledge what you have done wrong. The first step happens before you approach the person and ask for their forgiveness (see the previous section on heshbon hanefesh). Reflect on the situation and recognize what you did that was wrong. It takes humility and honesty to admit our own faults, but coming to terms with this and feeling genuine regret is the first step. Remember that no one is perfect and that we all do things sometimes for which we need to repent.
  • Apologize to the person for what you have done wrong and ask for their forgiveness. Judaism teaches that it is not enough to think about what you have done wrong; you need to express it verbally. Be specific enough so that the person knows that you are taking responsibility, but not overly specific if the details will cause them more pain. Don’t say, “I am sorry if I hurt you this year” (you know you hurt them, so don’t say “if”) or “I’m sorry for hurting you” (too vague). It is also good to acknowledge the pain that it caused the person, and express regret. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry for saying [hurtful statement]. I know that it hurt you and I didn’t mean it. I wish it could take it back. Please forgive me.”
  • Do whatever you can do to undo the damage. Teshuvah involves compensating the person for the injury as well as giving tzedakah (charity) to others. If the act of wrongdoing did not cause financial loss, then consider whether there is other damage you could repair. For example, if you spoke lashon hara (“malicious speech”) about someone, you should go to the person who listened to the lashon hara and tell them that you didn’t mean what you said about the person. (Note that in cases of lashon hara, there is a debate about whether you should ask forgiveness of a victim who was unaware of the offense.)

Should you grant forgiveness if someone asks you?

If someone has done teshuvah and asks for your forgiveness, and the apology is sufficiently genuine and sincere, Jewish law states that you should do whatever you can to open your heart and forgive the person. Rambam states, “When the one who sinned implores [a person] for pardon, he should grant him pardon wholeheartedly and soulfully. Even if one persecuted him and sinned against him exceedingly, he should not be vengeful and grudge-bearing” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah/Laws of Repentance 2:10).

However, it can sometimes take time to be ready to forgive someone. If someone asks for your forgiveness and you are not yet ready to grant it to them, you could ask that they come back in a set amount of time (a couple of weeks, a month, or in three months, but try not to make it an indefinite amount of time, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches). In that time, seek to prepare yourself to be able to forgive them so that you can do it genuinely and truly let go of the issue.

Jewish law states that a person should attempt to obtain forgiveness three times, after which the sin is “on” the person who refuses to grant forgiveness (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Hayim 606:1). 

While all of this applies to most cases, there are some sins in which forgiveness is optional or even forbidden. For example, the act of murder is unforgivable because only the victim can forgive the perpetrator. Mishna Yoma 8:9 states that for transgressions between people, there can be no complete repentance until the person who was wronged is appeased. This is obviously impossible in the case of murder. Although relatives of the person could choose to forgive the murderer for the pain it caused them, they cannot forgive for the act itself. As Rambam explained, “The soul of the victim is not the property [of his family members] but the property of God” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rozeah Ushemirat Nefesh/Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life, 1:4).

Additionally, Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote that “If one was a victim of slander, one need not forgive.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explained that this is because slander causes irrevocable damage, and we are not required to forgive when the damage inflicted is irrevocable. 

Rabbi Telushkin explained when forgiveness is required, optional and forbidden:

  • Forgiveness is required when the damage done is not irrevocable and the petitioner seems genuinely sorry for the transgression. 
  • Forgiveness is optional when the damage is irrevocable or the transgressor does not ask for forgiveness. 
  • Forgiveness is forbidden when the damage is done to someone other than one’s self, meaning that we are not empowered to forgive on behalf of another.

Additionally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds that, “You cannot forgive while evil is ongoing… Forgiveness is always something that accompanies a cease, a pause… There has to be an end, a truce, let us say, in the hostilities before forgiveness can begin.”

The bottom line

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “I forgive you because, when you admit you did wrong, express remorse and do all you can to make amends, especially when I see that, given the opportunity…to repeat the crime you do not do so because you have changed, then I see that you have distanced yourself from your deed. Forgiveness means I fundamentally reaffirm your worth as a person, despite the fact that we both know your act was wrong.”

In the vast majority of cases, when a person asks for your forgiveness and has done teshuvah, it is better to forgive than not to forgive — and to release yourself from old grudges and resentments. Just as we all want to be given the opportunity to learn and change and be forgiven in the eyes of others, we should extend that same opportunity to others.

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