If you were told to repent the day before you die, when should you start repenting? Right now!
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (10 days apart) are the Jewish High Holy Days. Observance includes communal prayer, food (such as apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year), hearing the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn), tashlich (tossing bread crumbs in a body of water, symbolically casting away our sins) and a focus on teshuva (repentance).
The Jewish teaching about repentance is especially relevant now as Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on Friday night.
While celebrating a new year (5784) is joyous, it is also serious work.
This children’s song for the holiday by Debbie Friedman expresses it well:
“These are the days we say we’re sorry, for all the things we’ve done that we could do better. These are the days to make a promise, to be the best that we can be.”
We are not perfect and that’s OK! Sociologist Brene Brown explains in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” that we are going to make mistakes. When we do, we may feel guilt or shame. Guilt is a feeling that “I have done something bad.” Shame is a feeling that “I am bad.” Guilt is a normal part of life. It can propel us to engage in repentance.
Many have taught about the power of apologies and what makes a good apology. Certainly, it is important to make an apology victim centered. Acknowledge what you did wrong and don’t weaken an apology with words such as “if it made you feel that way.”
The work of repentance is serious work and along with prayer and charity, a major focus of the Jewish New Year observance. If you apologize for something you did while you continue to do it, that is not a valid apology.
In her book “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg draws on the wisdom from 12th century rabbi and scholar, Maimonides.
“Maimonides says that someone who confesses their sins but ‘has not abandoned sin in their heart’ is like someone who becomes immersed in the ritual bath while holding a lizard—the living waters cannot purify as intended if someone is clutching a non-kosher creepy-crawly that will invalidate the whole process.”
Personally, I prefer dogs to lizards but the point here is clear. Repentance and apologizing requires more than words. It requires a change in our behavior.
Now, we are human and we will make mistakes. But this major focus of the Jewish New Year is on becoming the best version of ourselves. The spiritual work continues throughout the year. This is a poignant time to truly work on metaphorically putting down the lizard!
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Emeth, located in Morgan Hill and serving all of South County. Congregation Emeth, founded 46 years ago, is the oldest Jewish community in South County and welcomes you to join our diverse and caring community which offers Jewish learning, social justice and caring connection. Rabbi Dantowitz can be contacted at [email protected].