What is repentance?
On a very practical, halachic level, genuine repentance must include the following four elements:
1. Regret for the specific sin committed 2. Resolving not to do it again in the future 3. Desisting from it in the present and 4. Confessing before G-d.
The confession – viduy – that we say on Yom Kippur, which is such a central part of the service, is really the culmination of the repentance process that we have embarked upon during the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur. We have been given these days to think and introspect, so that the viduy on Yom Kippur will not be just an external mouthing of the words but something which is sincere and which reflects the internal process of change we have undergone.
Resolutions for the New Year
Repentance on Yom Kippur also has to entail a practicable commitment. As we go through the confessions we need to think not only about what we regret but about our resolutions for the future, and what practical steps are we going to take to ensure we keep those resolutions.
I personally have found very useful advice in the biography on Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, one of the greatest rabbis in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Rav Chaim Ozer was a rabbi in Vilna, but his influence spread throughout the world. In the years between the First and Second World War he was the address in Eastern Europe for so many people looking for guidance and spiritual direction. In his biography is a list of things that he had undertaken one Yom Kippur a few years before he passed away. He had written down the resolutions that he took on for the new year, and one can see from this list how he chose such practical steps to take, as this is what will ultimately lead to change.
As you think about the things you want to do in the coming year, which mitzvot you want to take on and in what areas you want to improve, write them down and keep the list with you, so that you can check it from time to time and see how you are progressing. It makes the whole process of change so much more concrete, and that is part of our preparation for Yom Kippur – to make repentance something which is real.
The prerequisite to repentance
The Gemara distinguishes between the two categories of mitzvot: the commandments bein adam laMakom, between us and Hashem, and the commandments bein adam lachaveiro, between us and our fellow human being. For a transgression affecting the mitzvot between us and Hashem we can simply go through the process outlined above – regret for the past, resolve for the future, desisting and confessing. But if the transgression involved harming another person – financially, physically or in any other way – one cannot simply go through the process of repentance and ask Hashem for forgiveness; one first has to undo the damage that was done and ask for forgiveness, and only then can one truly repent.
The halacha is that Yom Kippur only atones for sins between us and our fellow human being if one has taken the necessary steps to repair the damage and has asked for forgiveness from the person harmed. We cannot go through the repentance process without fixing what we have done wrong. We cannot ask Hashem to forgive us when we still have unpaid debts or have caused harm to another’s property or hurt their feelings. And so we have to think carefully: are there people we may have hurt over the last year? If so, we need to ask them for forgiveness; and only once they grant us forgiveness can we then proceed to the atonement of Yom Kippur. It is important to do this before Yom Kippur arrives, so that we can maximise the power of atonement on the day of Yom Kippur. Atonement is not automatic; we do not simply stand there on Yom Kippur and have our slate wiped clean. It requires effort on our part and has to be a genuine, internal process of repentance.
Rewriting the past
The process of repentance, though it is contingent on us putting in effort, is nonetheless a Divine gift. When we have done something wrong, there is a sense that we cannot undo it. But repentance gives us the opportunity to change, and that is the beauty of Yom Kippur. Normally cannot go back and change the past; yet G-d’s gift of repentance and Yom Kippur enables us to time travel and rewrite the past. But do we fully appreciate this gift?
Sometimes we take things for granted and do not realise their true value; discovering a gift for the first time can indeed be a great surprise. Imagine you never knew the concept of repentance, that through the process of teshuva you could actually change the past. What would it feel like to discover this gift for the first time? The Midrash relates how Adam HaRishon, the very first man, felt when he first discovered the possibility of repenting and being forgiven for sin. He did not know that such a concept existed, that one could actually repent after doing something wrong. The Midrash says that when Adam discovered teshuva, he was so overwhelmed with gratitude and joy that he could repent, and so he composed a song of thanksgiving to Hashem, which we all know well: it’s the Psalm we say every Friday night and Shabbat morning, Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat, “The psalm in honour of the Shabbat Day.”
Why did Adam sing about Shabbat in this song of thanksgiving for the gift of repentance? What is the connection between the two?
Teshuva – returning to our source
In order to understand this connection we must first understand what repentance is all about. Although we use the English word “repentance,” the Hebrew word for it, “teshuva,” actually comes from the Hebrew word lashuv, which means “to return.” Repentance is about returning to our source.
The Gemara (Yoma 86a) says, “R’ Levi said: Great is repentance, for it reaches the Heavenly Throne.” The Gemara says further, Amar R’ Yosi HaGelili, gedola teshuva shemevia geula laolam, “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption to the world.”
The Maharal, one of our great philosophers, says that these two statements teach us about the nature of repentance. Repentance, says the Maharal, is the process of returning to our origin, of going back to our source, returning to Hashem and to who we really are. There is a technical dimension to repentance, which we mentioned earlier – regret for the past, resolve for the future, desisting and confession. But the spiritual and psychological dimension of teshuva is about returning to our source.
This is why the Gemara says, “Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory.” Of course, G-d has no body and does not “sit”: the Throne of Glory refers to the highest spiritual levels in the heavens, from where every soul emanates. Our soul comes into this world pure, from the highest levels of holiness; but when the soul enters the body and lives in this world and sins, its purity is sullied. The process of repentance brings us back to the original purity with which our soul came into this world, and that is why the Gemara says, “Great it repentance, for it reaches the Throne of Glory.” Repentance is a journey back to who we really are. When we do teshuva, we are actually returning to our real nature and are reconnecting with Hashem.
The Maharal explains further that this is why the Gemara also says, “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption to the world.” Redemption, too, is about returning to our source. The great Prophets talk about the redemption of the Jewish people and describe it as the “ingathering of the exiles.” Galut, exile, is the ultimate punishment – a dispersal of the Jewish people; geula, the redemption, is the ingathering, the coming back to our source – to G-d, to the Land of Israel, to our calling as a people. Repentance, like redemption, has the power to bring us back to our source.
Repentance and Shabbat
Now we can understand the connection to Shabbat and why Adam sang Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat when he discovered the incredible gift of repentance. On Shabbat we return to our source. Once a week we come back to our core values, and to our connection with Hashem, with our families, with our communities and with who we really are, as individuals and as a people. Adam composed a song specifically in honour of Shabbat because repentance is about returning to our source, just as Shabbat is. The two go hand-in-hand.