Rosh Hashanah is over for another year. I shall miss the shofar and the beautiful prayer that we, all living breathing creatures, should recognise our bonds with one another and with God.
The focus now in these important days which culminate in Yom Kippur is Teshuvah, repentance and return.
Teshuvah has both a backward- and a forward-facing aspect. The first concerns the deeds we have done and what we learn from the past history of our own lives. The second (which I hope to write about tomorrow) is about whom we aspire to be, our ‘return’ to the dreams and ideals of the person we would like to become.
Remorse is a painful sensation; no one relishes experiencing it. But it is a sign of moral health. To feel remorse means to be sincerely and painfully aware of the hurt we have caused another person. More truly than regret, it indicates that we wish for more than that the whole matter should be forgotten, that it should just go away. It shows we feel something deeper than ‘I’m sorry if you were upset’. Remorse is the stinging awareness that we said or did something, intentionally or inadvertently, which brought another person pain.
What do we do with this feeling? First of all, it should guide us to apologise if this is at all possible, not because we have to, or because it’s the ‘PC’ thing, but because we want to. The question inside us, next to ‘what have I done?’ is ‘how can I bring healing?’
If we in turn should be the person who’s been hurt and someone approaches us with a genuine apology, we shouldn’t be hard hearted and hold ourselves aloof. That in itself is hurtful. Furthermore, who are we to be merciless? Don’t we all know what it’s like to feel terrible over something we said or did?
Secondly, there is an important internal dimension to reflecting on our mistakes. They offer us an especially powerful, if painful, opportunity to grow as human beings. I imagine this is what the third century Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimeon ben Lakish, meant by his saying:
Great is repentance because, through it, even our deliberate sins can become merits.
Our very errors, when we realise their consequences and how they have affected others, can become our most compelling teachers. They provide ‘the lessons we truly never forget’. We may well wish we’d never had to receive them in the first place. But, if they extend our sensitivity and capacity for compassion, they ultimately become part not of our shame and guilt, but,far more significantly, of our growth.
I believe this is the true meaning of the words baal teshuvah: they describe the person whose humanity has been deepened, whose heart has been opened and softened, by learning not just from life’s blessings, but from the wrongs we, being human, inevitably commit and who resolves to try never to give hurt or cause suffering any more.