Heartfelt Repentence and Righting Wrongs Achieve Attonement


Heartfelt Repentence  and Righting Wrongs Achieve Attonement


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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 next Elul.

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 matter what.

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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