Teshuvah (Seeking Forgiveness)

This is an important time of year for me.  As the days begin to imperceptibly contract I’m mindful that earlier sunsets mean that fall isn’t far away and that we’re rapidly approaching the holiest days of the year on the Jewish calendar.

The ten days encompassing the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur) are known as the Days of Awe.  These days—this year falling between September 13th – 23rd 2015–require Jews to reflect on the full measure of their lives.  No matter your religious beliefs or whether you believe in G-d or a “higher power” the messages embodied in these 10 days are worth embracing.

As a young child I remember accompanying my father to synagogue and learning that on the last of these days—Yom Kippur—we, in the congregation, would be inscribed either in the Book of Life or the Book of Death.  A mystical tension filled the room as men and women wept with the palpable consequences of their lives.  But as a young child I had no way to grasp the gravity of the moment.

Young children generally don’t spend much time worrying about death.  As we grow into adults it’s only natural to be confronted with our own mortality.  We watch those around us—parents, friends, acquaintances–get older, get sick and pass.  In time we come to understand that life is finite and that one day we will remain only as someone’s memory. This sober understanding that life is finite can also be liberating permitting us to focus on what matters to us most.  At a certain point we may come to understand that while we’re still here on this earth we have a mission to fulfill—one for us to define and to carry out. Yom Kippur reminds us that each day presents us with an opportunity to define and to live in a way that fulfills our mission.

The Days of Awe, therefore, provide a time for serious introspection. In Jewish tradition our actions during this time can alter G-d’s decree.  During those days—if you choose to believe–we have some limited ability to persuade G-d to “inscribe” us in the Book of Life or the Book of Death.  The three actions by which we will be judged—which serve as a lesson for the rest of our lives—is teshuvah (seeking forgiveness for our wrongs), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (performing good deeds).

This article is about the first of these actions—teshuvahTeshuvahseeking forgiveness for our wrongs—is a lifelong process involving personal growth, humility and recognition of the ways in which we affect others.  Teshuvah is properly listed first of the 3 actions with which we can persuade G-d.

In Judaism, as in other religions, there are “sins” that we commit against G-d (for those of us who believe) and “sins” or “wrongs” that we commit against another person.  Prayer does not absolve us for the sins that we commit against another human being.  G-d does not pardon us for the sins we commit against our parents, spouse, children, friends and loved ones–or anyone else for that matter.  G-d has only the power to grant us forgiveness for the sins we commit against G-d—for everything else we must seek forgiveness from those that we have harmed.

And that’s why teshuvah is so important–because we can’t begin serious introspection without it.  If we’re to begin a somber understanding of why we’re here and what our mission in life is all about we must provide a spiritual cleansing for ourselves.  We must rid ourselves of the day-to-day distractions that are the product of conflict, betrayal, deception and other sins against the people in our lives.

But how can we repent and seek forgiveness from the important people in our lives whom we have hurt?

Truthfully seeking forgiveness seems foreign to our culture. To seek teshuvah is to admit imperfection and guilt.  Instead, we have become a society of “blamers”.  We are swift to highlight the deficiencies of others.  We are quick to blame our parents, our spouse, our children, our boss, co-workers, elected officials for all of our problems and the inequities in our lives.  But we rarely admit “I feel really awful for the way I treated __________?”  It just doesn’t happen very often.  Does it?

Yet, with some notable exceptions we generally play some role in a conflict—especially those that we have with loved ones.  But rarely do we look scrupulously at ourselves asking how we may have contributed to a never-ending battle or even a minor skirmish.  Such self-examination is, in fact, anathema to our culture.

What we have witness is a culture that has shifted dramatically in the past 70 years.  Since the end of World War II the “Greatest Generation” has morphed from a civilization that once believed in self-sacrifice and personal responsibility to a nation of individuals who wonder “What’s in it for me?”  In the space of 70 years we’ve transformed ourselves from a dedicated hard-working people who made enormous sacrifices to save and build Western civilization to one whose greatest concern is the narcissistic documentations of their own lives with the “selfie”.  Indeed much has changed since John Kennedy proclaimed “ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country!”

At one time family units were comparatively strong.  Children were generally raised by both parents who, in turn, would depend on their help as they grew old and infirm.  Manufacturer’s such as Eastman Kodak provided security to their employees and in return there was loyalty.  And although CEOs always made more than employees the greed of the ultra-rich was never as widespread or pernicious as it is today.   There was, overall, greater concern for the welfare of others and an understanding that to give voice to that concerned required personal sacrifice.

Today we no longer trust in personal responsibility of elected officials and we’ve come to accept political and financial scandal as the new normal.  We all wonder how to change things so that life is both more meaningful and secure.  But we’re at a loss for how to begin.

Perhaps the key lies in these 10 days—the Days of Awe.  Perhaps in this time of introspection and self-reflection we may come discover that the key lies not with someone else “out there” but “in here” within us.

During these days of Awe we are not asked to “keep score” or “get even” with the world around us, we are asked to “seek forgiveness” (teshuvah) for the sins we have committed against one another.  It is assumed that all of us have something to seek forgiveness for.  It is unmanageable that we have not offended, damaged or hurt someone close to us.  The very fact that they are important to us, dependent upon us and that we depend on them makes it so much more likely that we would have injured them.  After all, these are the ones we hurt most deeply.

And yet we live in a culture of blame.  “If only they would have treated me differently I wouldn’t have said what I said, or done what I did.”  “I’ll apologize when they apologize…first”. The end result is generally a stalemate getting us no closer to resolving conflict, seeking forgiveness or getting on with our life’s goals…which are far more important.

So how do ask for forgiveness from someone we’ve hurt or wronged? After all—for those of us who believe in G-d—it’s so much easier to ask G-d than to look someone straight in the eye and ask them to forgive us.  What if they say “no”?  The very process of asking for forgiveness causes us to feel naked and vulnerable.  And that’s precisely the point.

In this time of year—the Days of Awe—we come to understand just how naked and vulnerable we are.  We come to understand that by next year we may no longer be here and that we have only so much time to realize and fulfill our life’s goals.  Life is finite…a frightening realization.

And so we prepare for these important life lessons—that life is finite and that we have a mission—by purifying our souls and asking forgiveness from other people whose lives are also finite and who also have a goal and a mission to fulfill.

Even if we played only a small role in the conflict for which we seek forgiveness we seek forgiveness for that small role.  Even if our part was a minor one it was still our part.  It is still something we contributed to.

And in the act of teshuvah–asking forgiveness–we change a small piece of the world and a large piece of ourselves.  As the 2000 movie title suggests we “Pay it Forward”.  In seeking teshuvah we enable a different and more loving conversation to occur—and in so doing we enable ourselves and those around us to live their lives more fully.

Morris Wortman, MD