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It’s Not Enough to Say “I’m Sorry” – On Yom Kippur
By Nina Amir
Like the leaves on the trees, as summer turns into autumn we begin a turning
– a t’shuvah (repentance) – of our own. We turn our attention away from the
distractions of everyday life and towards God. We turn away from outward denial of
wrongdoing and toward inner acknowledgement of sins. We turn away from unwanted
behavior and toward atonement for past wrongful acts.
During the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pray, hope, wish for God’s forgiveness for the sins we committed over the past year. We don’
t ask for God to judge us appropriately for our actions but to, please, have
mercy on us. And as the last sounds of the shofar fade, we imagine ourselves
receiving a divine fresh start, a chance to begin the new year with a clean
slate and with our names inscribed in the “Book of Life” – at least until
Oh, that it was so simple. In fact achieving God’s mercy and our own t’
shuvah takes more than saying a specific prayer or offering a simple apology.
Just a few years ago, I did not know this. I thought that as a Jew, I need only
ask God for forgiveness once a year to find myself miraculously forgiven. To
achieve this end, I attended services on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. I
even fasted on the latter holiday in an effort to cleanse myself of my past
sins, but when the sanctuary doors opened after the last Yom Kippur service I
left the synagogue feeling only my hunger pangs. The prayers I had recited
held little meaning for me and caused even less serious t’shuva of any sort.
Despite this, I still felt certain that my attendance at services and the apologetic
words I offered up to God were enough to have received God’s mercy. I moved
forward into the new year feeling I had met my religious obligations, but I
did not take with me an overall sense of having repented, atoned or changed my
behavior or goals in any way.
At that time, I was not what I would call a “practicing Jew.” I was a Jew
by birth and by observance of the major Jewish holidays. Later, I decided to
actually “practice” my religion on a weekly basis and to obtain the Jewish
education I never received when I was younger. What I then learned about the
High Holy Days changed my views on repentance and atonement forever.
I discovered that, as Jews, we generally atone for three basic sins: those
committed against God, against man, and against ourselves. All three require
reconciliation in one form or another. For the first type of sin, we must
feel sincerely regretful and ask for God’s forgiveness. For the second type of
sin, we must not only feel regretful but also take steps actually to right the
wrong against the other person. Then we can ask that person for their
forgiveness. For the third sin – the sin against ourselves, we must try to right
the wrong and seek forgiveness internally.
Learning about the reconciliation required in all three cases subsequently
led me to a new understanding of why Jews most often use the word “atone”
rather than “repent.” To atone means to make amends or reparation for our
actions. To repent means to feel sorry, self-reproachful or contrite for our past
conduct, so much so that we might change our behavior for the better. We
need to do more than feel penitent, apologize or change to achieve God’s
forgiveness for our conduct. We must atone by offering a tikkun, a repair, by
actually fixing the wrongdoing.
Along these same lines, it is not enough to go through the motions of
atonement and repentance. God’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur is not a “given” for
anyone sheepishly saying, “Sorry,” but not wanting to change his or her ways.
Repentance must be heartfelt. It goes without saying that anyone with the
attitude “I will sin and then repent” receives no forgiveness. Neither can we
only repent for our blatant misdeeds. It matters not if we sinned in private
or in public. The message of the High Holy Days is that what we do counts…no
When I began going through the “required course” for Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur, observance of these holidays became meaningful and spiritual for me.
Although atonement is not always an easy thing to do or accomplish, trying
to repair what I have “broken” feels important and necessary for moving
forward with a clear conscience and pure soul. After doing so, the words of the
prayers I recite during the High Holy Day services also hold more meaning for
me and inspire further introspection, repentance, desire for atonement, and
plans for better behavior.
In particular, the use of the word “atone” in the High Holy Day liturgy
holds special meaning for me. If you break this word into two parts it becomes “
at-one.” For me, to at-one means to become one with God. I see true
atonement as a process by which we can achieve unity with the Divine Presence.
When we cleanse ourselves of our sins – through repentance and atonement, we
are able to achieve true t’shuva – a personal return to God.
Another word used in the High Holy Day liturgy influenced my understanding
and experience of the holidays. The High Holy Day prayer book refers to “sin”
with the Hebrew word “chet,” whose origin lies in an archery term meaning “
to miss the mark.” In other words, we do not commonly sin because we
suddenly become evil or we are inherently bad. We most often sin because we just
don’t quite achieve our goals. We just don’t quite hit the target at which
we were aiming.
For me, it seems much easier to admit I “missed the mark” than that I “sinned.” The use of this word seems to assume that we entered the past year with
sincere intentions of hitting the target. We had a goal – to study Torah each
week, not to gossip, to take better care of our health, to be a better mother
or husband, for example – which we had good and sincere intentions of
achieving but which for some reason we were not able to attain.
No matter the terminology, I have learned that attendance at services,
fasting and apologies to God are not enough. So, I begin my repentance
and atonement process – and a process it is – on S’lichot, the holiday that comes almost a week before Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the High Holy Days and the repentance process, and do not complete it until
the Yom Kippur afternoon service has concluded. Then, I leave the sanctuary
feeling cleansed – not simply from my fast but from the true desire to change
and my efforts at personal tikkun. I walk away from the temple feeling
at one with myself, with the other people in my life, and with God.
The changing color of leaves marks the end of summer and the beginning of
fall. In much the same way, the conclusion of the High Holy Days signal the
end of the past year and the chance to “turn over a new leaf” to welcome the
start of the new year. We can take the liturgical poetic image of the “Book of
Life” with us as a reminder that with our deeds we mark the pages of our
lives, and that those lives are, indeed, fragile. However, at any time – not
just during the month of Elul – we can change what is written on the pages and
alter our fate. We need only repent and atone to achieve t’shuva. Simple.
Maybe not, but definitely worth the effort.
Nina Amir, an acclaimed journalist and author, an often-requested speaker and a Kabbalistic conscious creation coach, focuses her work on teaching people to live their lives fully, manifest their dreams, transform empty religious rituals into meaning-full and spirit-full practices, create sacred space, and take on the role of priestess. She currently is writing Setting a Place for God, A Woman's Guide to Creating Sacred Space and Inviting the Divine to Dwell Within It, and teaching teleclasses and workshops related to this topic. You can contact her by visiting www.purespiritcreations.com.
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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