The days from Rosh Hashanah up to and including Yom Kippur are known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, on which ‘Everyone should search and carefully examine their deeds’ (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 603:1). They are also days devoted to kindness and charity and to showing generosity of spirit and appreciation towards those with whom we share our lives. It’s as least as important to appreciate our blessings as it is to consider our faults.
Each day I hope to write briefly about one aspect of the challenging process of repentance or return. I want to begin with the question of motivation, since the very word ‘Repentance’ is liable to sound negative, bound up with sin and failure, and coloured by associations with being told off and punished.
The Talmud (Yoma, 86b) distinguishes between two kinds of motivation for Teshuvah, repentance or return. There is Teshuvah mi’yirah, repentance from fear, and Teshuvah me’ahavah, repentance from love.
Repentance from love is more powerful. I think of it as if I’d carelessly said something sharp to someone I love. I look up, see their face and feel immediate sorrow. No one has to remind me to apologise; it’s the first thing I want to do. The difficulty is that we often forget how important those close to us really are to us, not to mention how precious all people are because, although we may scarcely know them, they too have a heart, sensitivities, and those for whom they deeply care. What motivates us to repent out of love is the re-awakening of our awareness that life is full of wonder, joy, tenderness and love itself. How could we want to hurt it? When we learn that we have given pain, as we inevitably sometimes do, remorse wells up from within us and the desire to make good.
Negative as it may sound, repentance from fear is also important. Very few people have never been tormented by the thought, ‘What have I gone and done!’ and anguish over the consequences to which it will give rise. One wishes one could wipe the act out of the record of all existence, that it should have no karma, produce no effects. But the damage, or at least some damage, is done. What if anything can we now do to alter the course of events? How can we learn never to do anything like it again? Probably none of us has managed to avoid spending time in that anxious territory. If humanity did so more, there would be fewer wars and less arrogance towards our environment. Acknowledgment of our responsibility and fear over the consequences can also lead us to change the way we behave.
Either way, the very idea of repentance is based on a positive understanding of human nature. We instinctively want to do right; we are pained when we realise we’ve caused harm. We are not powerless over our character, but have the capacity to change our conduct and a heart which longs to do so. All we need is strength of purpose. There is a beautiful rabbinic saying that God helps the person who takes one step in repentance with at least the next nine. I believe it. I believe that this God is present within us all.