There are, according to greatest codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides, four stages in Teshuvah; each requiring work.
Firstly comes Viddui – confession. In Jewish law a sin cannot be cleansed unless it is verbally articulated. It cannot be liberated from the soul if it can’t get passed the lips. And generalities don’t count. Mass e-mails requesting forgiveness, ‘For anything and everything that I might have done to hurt you’ suggest more of an attempt to whitewash sins than truly heal them. Saying sorry, admitting fault, is not easy; particularly when a wronged person still harbours resentment. Nonetheless we are called on to be specific, personal and honest.
Secondly comes making good. Items taken need to be returned. This is fine for some sins, but incredibly difficult for others. It has always struck me that the Jewish pre-occupation with the harms committed through speech is best understood this way. Damage committed through speech is most especially difficult to make good. It’s better to be careful ahead of time.
Thirdly comes stopping the wrong action. Rambam details two categories of Baalei Teshuvah – Masters of Repentance when it comes to this stage. The standard case is a person who manages to stop, maybe because they no longer can be bothered to do the wrong again, maybe because they fear of being caught – it counts either way. Then there is the Master of Total Repentance, the person who stops even though they still lust after the thing they did wrong. They find the strength to cease from wrong purely through their commitment not to perform the acts which they now know are wrong.
Finally comes letting go of the desire to do the thing. The Talmud proposes an image of a person with their hand clamped tightly round a Sheretz – an entirely impure and unkosher insect – getting into a Mikvah thinking the waters will somehow take the impurities away. We need to prise back our own grasping, we need to open our hand to let go of what we should no longer carry with us in the year to come.
We should, of course, be doing this work throughout the year, but these special days are, Maimonides teaches, especially beneficial, less, I suspect because of any astrological juju, and more because this is the time when we most come together and share in our willingness to go on this journey as a community.
May we find strength and humility in that shared task, and may the year be sealed for us all for good.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah,