Yom Kippur’s concept of repentance may seem idealistic, or even extreme, for people who like to think they are carrying out their day-to-day lives with genuine goodwill and conscientiousness toward family, friends and fellow humans. The word “repent” may conjure images of an angry God upbraiding true evildoers and law breakers.
So how can Jews dig into the real spirit of Yom Kippur and embrace not only what repentance can bring into their everyday lives, but also how offering and accepting forgiveness can heal themselves and others?
Pikesville therapist Lisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker, educator, author, consultant and founder of the Ferentz Institute, has witnessed many versions of repentance, including apologizing with words and making amends through behavioral change, but she said the most important aspects of repentance include that it must be “heartfelt, motivated by good intentions, and genuinely voluntary.”
Motivation for repenting can come from many corners, Ferentz said, including uncomfortable guilt, family or community pressure, religious obligation or “an authentic desire to be forgiven and to set things ‘right’ again. When repentance is sincere, the psychological benefits include experiencing a release, a sense of relief and an inner calm.”
“It can bring us closer to others and deepen a sense of spiritual comfort and healing,” she added. “When the words or actions associated with asking for forgiveness or making amends are disingenuous, it can actually exacerbate guilt and leave us feeling hollow.”
Another aspect Ferentz noted is that repentance should not include self-blame, should not be synonymous in people’s minds with saying, “we are a damaged or bad” person.
“When repentance becomes self-effacing and is highly judgmental or critical that will only serve to increase feelings of worthlessness,” she said. “There needs to be a sense of clarity about what we actually ‘own’ and are accountable for, and what we don’t own. Repentance can help us explore that.
“So, in addition to apologizing or making amends, we can also come to the realization that there are things we are not responsible for, such as being able to control, fix, change, or predict another person’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors. And in those instances, we can let ourselves off the hook and be freed up from having to repent.”
At Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, spiritual leader Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein said he can never be sure that he truly knows what is in the hearts of most of his congregants.
“Despite the best of intentions, asking for forgiveness is a very difficult thing to do, and each year, I hope that the time spent in synagogue, reflecting on the prayers and messages of our tradition, will give individuals the strength to assess their lives and do the repair work of teshuva to better their relationships with family and friends,” he said.
When repentance is sincere, the psychological benefits include experiencing a release, a sense of relief and an inner calm. — Lisa Ferentz
On a personal level, Goldstein said that during Yom Kippur he asks for forgiveness of people he has encountered over the past year, whether in a professional or personal capacity, and that the language he uses is very specific.
“The language for me is not ‘if’ I hurt or disappointed you, but ‘when,’” he said. “I wonder the extent to which the message ‘to apologize is to show weakness’ has affected this process?”
Throughout Yom Kippur, Goldstein said reciting the lengthy Al Chet brings with it the meaning that people often “miss the mark, while teshuva means to return, to do better, as each of us ‘miss the mark’ on so many levels.”
“I have always encouraged individuals to not worry about saying all of the Al Chets, but rather, pick one or two and look inward to reflect on how they can change, do better and how will they will accomplish that difficult task,” he added.
Over time, Goldstein said more people have talked with him about their difficulty of forgiving someone for a perceived wrongdoing than have discussed seeking forgiveness. He said family dynamics around caretaking can often be challenging, but can be, he said, “where the work of forgiveness has the most positive effect, for oneself, and others who one might feel did not take on ‘their share’ of care. Working on asking for forgiveness and letting go of hurt feelings can determine so much about the future dynamics of a family’s life.
“The inability to forgive, the holding of grudges, our unwillingness to let go of perceived or real events, is perhaps even a more damaging phenomenon. It is a stone that sits on top of our hearts, weighing us down, affecting our attitude and mental health.”
Rabbi Gila Ruskin, spiritual leader of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, is a former mental health chaplain who has seen many truly deep and life-changing acts of repentance. She said although some people may consider themselves, “past the point of no return,” there is still potential for people to be able to honestly face what they’ve done and “go through the very difficult, yet essential, steps toward repentance.” But, she said, it’s not a simple process.
“You have to acknowledge what you did, go to the person, seek forgiveness, articulate exactly what it is that you did, even if the person does not forgive you, once you’ve tried multiple times,” Ruskin said. “What Maimonides says is, you have to put yourself in that same situation, so the temptation is as great as the first time, and that you’ve really changed. It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ You have to go through all these stages. So, when we talk about repentance, it’s a serious matter.”
For people going through difficult times, including divorce, other types of loss or criminal issues, Ruskin said Yom Kippur can be especially poignant.
“A good Yom Kippur, in my mind, is when you get to Ne’ila, you have this feeling of exhilaration,” she said. “So at the end, if you’ve really done that work, if you’ve really sought forgiveness and been honest and done what seems to be embarrassing, humiliating, mortifying, degrading, in order to get there.
“If you’ve really done all that and received the forgiveness from the party you’ve injured, or not, and you’re able to believe that you are strong enough to resist that urge [to repeat the wrong], if you really go through that difficult journey, I think it can be transformational.”