D’var Torah: Complete repentance

Rabbi Brad Horwitz

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

During this season of the Jewish High Holidays, it is our responsibility to do tshuvah (repentance). Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there are ten days called Aseret Yemei Tshuvah or the Ten Days of Repentance. It is this time when we focus on our sins and transgressions of the past year and ask for forgiveness. We ask God for forgiveness for the sins that we have committed and we also ask forgiveness from our fellow human beings who we have wronged either intentionally or unintentionally this past year. During this period some of us participate in the ritual known as Tashlich, where we go to a river, stream or lake and symbolically caste away our sins by throwing crackers or breadcrumbs out into the water accompanied by prayers and readings.

Amongst all of the apologies, holiday festivities and rituals, it is common for people to miss a critical piece of the process of tshuvah. Yes, asking for forgiveness and reflecting on our sins are key elements to the process but there is more to it than that. The Hebrew word tshuvah comes from the same Hebrew word that means “to return.” In order to be truly free from our sins, we must in some way return to them. Maimonides, the famous medieval Jewish scholar and rabbi, explains this in more detail in his multi-volume legal work known as the Mishneh Torah when he asks and answers the question, “What is complete repentance or tshuvah g’murah?” Maimonides (Rambam) explains that one can only do complete repentance if he/she who has committed a wrong returns to another situation to do that exact same wrong again but refrains from repeating it. Furthermore, the motivation for not repeating the sin must not be because one is afraid of someone else or out of weakness but rather because one truly feels repentant in his/her heart.

With this deeper meaning and explanation tshuvah now becomes a more challenging and involved process. It is not merely about asking for forgiveness or throwing bread crumbs into the water, but requires some soul searching, self-control, deep thought, and reflection. It also is something that cannot be completed during the period of the High Holidays, but goes on throughout the year. If you were to replay your life and have a second chance, would you act differently? Human nature is difficult to change and habits are difficult to break. This is our sacred task and this is the challenge. Next time you come upon a chance to repeat a transgression, hurt someone’s feelings, cheat, lie, or gossip, think twice. Be among those in our community who will do tshuvah g’murah, complete repentance. G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of health, blessing, and happiness.

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Rabbi Brad Horwitz is the director of the Jewish Community Center’s Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life and president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.