Teshuvah - Fixing Mistakes
Mistakes will happen; fixing them so that they won't be repeated is the challenge of teshuvah.
Everyone makes mistakes. The Torah is filled with people -- great people -- who made mistakes.
Moses himself made mistakes. He was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel because of them.
Our forefathers and foremothers were human, made of flesh and blood. Indeed, what made them great was not that they led perfect lives, but that they learned from their mistakes. When they fell, they got up and continued on the path toward God.
What does God want from us when we make mistakes?
Teshuvah. The word teshuvah means "return." It is often mistranslated as "repentance." When we are asked by God to do teshuvah, we are asked by God to return.
RETURNING TO THE FAMILIAR
If you are flying "return" to Chicago, you leave your home and fly to Chicago. After you complete your stay, you use your return ticket to get on a plane to go back home. Returning means going back to somewhere you've been, somewhere familiar.
Teshuvah means we return to the path God set for us when we were born, the path that our souls know as homeward bound, the path of goodness, of becoming a better person.
There are many different types of teshuvah as there are many different types of mistakes. Some are very grave and may have taken a person's entire life off course. Here we are speaking about the errors of everyday life that often cause us to feel badly about ourselves and impair our relationship with others and with God.
Often we know at the time that what we are doing is wrong, but we convince ourselves that somehow at the moment it is right.
Everyone makes such mistakes. We all know when we stray, rationalize, bend the truth, avoid the effort, and ignore what is really important and meaningful in our lives. Often we know at the time that what we are doing is wrong, but we are caught up, and distracted, or we convince ourselves that somehow at the moment it is right.
God understands that. Everyone who has children doesn't expect them to be perfect. You know that as they grow they will make mistakes. Even when you tell them not to do something that will harm them, they do it any way.
How do you want them to feel when they err? Weighed down by guilt for life? Terrible about themselves? Of course not. You want them to recognize that they've made a mistake, be sorry, make amends if need be, learn from it so it doesn't get repeated, and to go on.
Guilt is not a Jewish idea because guilt is paralyzing and self-absorbing. The Jewish view is to use mistakes to grow forward.
Guilt is not a Jewish idea because guilt is paralyzing and self-absorbing.
God is our Father in Heaven. He doesn't want us to be weighed down by negativity and self-loathing when we make mistakes. When we make the wrong choices in life, they should be seen as opportunities for growth, not chains and shackles to weigh us down forever.
Maimonides sets out the steps for teshuvah. When we make a mistake, we are to go through the process step-by-step. The result is forgiveness and growth.
Step 1: Stop.
Stop whatever destructive action you are engaged in. If, for example, you are losing your temper with others, stop.
Step 2: Regret.
You should indeed feel regret for your error. It's wrong to lose your temper as you are likely to hurt others in doing so. You should be sorry for the harm you caused.
Step 3: Verbalize.
Explain your regret out loud to God. This doesn't have to be done at synagogue, and it doesn't have to be in Hebrew. Talk to God in at least an audible whisper, not just in your head; of course, God knows already, but you need to hear it. Tell Him that you are sorry for whatever you did wrong.If your actions harmed other people then you have to make amends. After losing your temper, you must go to your friend and ask his forgiveness.
Step 4: Make a Plan.
How can you be sure that the mistake won't happen again? Make a practical plan of action. If you know that certain subjects are sources of conflict between you and your friend, perhaps make a pact to avoid those subjects for the sake of peace.
The completion of these steps is called teshuvah gamurah, or "complete return." It occurs when God puts you in the same position as when you originally made the mistake and you do not repeat the mistake.
Once you have completed teshuvah, God accepts your return, and in the videotape of your life, those mistakes are edited out.
In our example of losing your temper with a friend, it would be sometime later, when the touchy subject comes up again. If you hold your tongue and do not let yourself get pulled into an argument, you will have achieved complete teshuvah.
Once you have completed teshuvah, God accepts your return, and in the videotape of your life, those mistakes are edited out. At Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when God reviews your year of thoughts and deeds, He simply doesn't see those mistakes.
It is out of God's love for us that He gives us such a method of getting back on track. Put the guilt, shame, embarrassment, and negativity behind you. Let them go, and return.
For further reading: Shimon Apisdorf, amazon.com Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit, Chapter on Teshuvah: Four Steps to Greatness, (Baltimore: Leviathan Press, 1994)