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Holidays 2: Chanukah

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Requesting Forgiveness From G-d

  1. Introduction
  2. Components of Teshuvah (Return to G-d)
    1. Regretting Past Misdeeds
    2. Commitment for Future Correction
    3. Viduy (Verbal Admission)
      1. The Value of Verbal Admission
      2. General vs. Specific Viduy
      3. Publicizing Sin
      4. Reciting Viduy Before G-d

Introduction

In his farewell speech to the Jewish People, Moses encourages them to take the message of teshuvah to heart. Though they may stray from the path that G-d has set before them, G-d has imbued every member of the Jewish People with the ability to return to G-d:

This mitzvah (commandment) that I am prescribing to you today is not overly mysterious, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who shall go up to heaven and bring it to us, so that we can hear it and keep it?" It is not beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross the sea and bring it to us, so that we can hear it and keep it?" For it is something that is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

[Deuteronomy 30:11-14]

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550, Italy) explains the reassuring message of teshuvah that is contained in these verses:

"It is not in heaven" – The mitzvah of teshuvah does not require any kind of Divine instruction, which could be acquired only by studying with a prophet of G-d. There is no need for prophetic vision to instruct anyone in the teshuvah process.

"It is not remote from you…beyond the sea" – Likewise, teshuvah does not require that you travel to distant places in search of a Torah sage to guide you in its performance. Teshuvah is distinguished from other mitzvot (commandments), which require that one seek human guidance to help one perform them properly.

"It is something that is very near to you" – Every human being can recognize sin, and its effect on one’s relationship with G-d; all of us can understand the need to admit our sins verbally.

By its very nature, teshuvah is a personal process that defies precise quantification. Since the most essential elements of teshuvah take place within our hearts, no one can tell us exactly what we must feel, or how much we must feel. No matter what our starting point, if approached with sincerity, teshuvah, our "return to G-d," penetrates to the depths of our soul, and invariably results in a new and higher relationship with G-d. In this study, we will explore the essential features of the teshuvah process, all of which are based in the Torah. The Torah outlines a general path of teshuvah which everyone can follow in order to come closer to G-d, but along this general path, each individual must forge his own walkway to G-d.

Components of Teshuvah

The Torah and Talmudic sources identify three basic components of the teshuvah process: It must begin from within, with (1) regret over past misdeeds, and then with (2) a commitment to correct such behavior. The process is crystallized with (3) a declaration of viduy (verbal admission of sins).

Regretting Past Misdeeds

Regretting sins that we have committed in the past is the first step in the teshuvah process. Two rabbis explain the role of regret as the initial stage of teshuvah:

Regretting our past sins helps us to clarify our motive for changing our moral behavior. We want our motive in bettering ourselves to be purely for the performance of G-d’s Will, although people can decide to refrain from sinning in the future for far less noble causes. They may change their ways because they are no longer capable of continuing to sin; or they can no longer support a lifestyle that includes a given sin; or they do not feel themselves attracted to it anymore. The only way that we can be sure that our decision to change our behavior is based on G-d’s Will, is to feel regret over the fact that we have done it.

[Rabbi Moshe of Trani, 1500-1580, Israel]

Regret clarifies our own recognition of our misdeeds. As long as a person rationalizes his sinful behavior, he cannot feel remorse. Moreover, one who feels regret shows that he understands that sin wields a powerful and a lasting influence on his life. Though we may eventually forget our actions, G-d will always hold us responsible for our moral behavior.

[Rabbi Bachyai, 11th century, Spain]

Rabbi Bachya goes on to compare our attitude toward sinning against G-d to our attitude toward sinning against another person. He emphasizes that everything we do reflects on our relationship with G-d. G-d expects us to maintain a mature relationship with Him, just as we do with other people. A sincere statement of "I am sorry" to someone whom we have wronged conveys to that person that we recognize the consequences of our actions; in the same way, our feelings of regret over our sins serves as acknowledgment before G-d, Who knows all our thoughts, of the damaging effects of sin upon our lives.

 

Commitment for Future Correction

Sincere regret over our past misdeeds must be coupled with a commitment to improve our actions in the future. On a practical level, sincere remorse is attainable if we will make a conscientious effort; on the other hand, the prospect of correcting all those acknowledged behavior patterns is daunting, if not unrealistic. Bad habits are very difficult to overcome, and any expectations we may have of making radical changes in our moral behavior cannot be considered reliable. With a full understanding of human nature, our Sages offer us sound advice in this area:

 

Realistic Planning: The Value of Small Changes

Rabbi Yochanan assigned his students a task: Go out and discover which is the most efficacious path to moral improvement. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend; Rabbi Yose said: A good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said: One who considers the consequences of his deeds; Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart.

[Tractate "Ethics of the Fathers" 2:13]

Rabbi Yonah (1180-1263 Spain) explains the wisdom of Rabbi Yochanan’s exercise, and the logic of his students’ responses:

Addressing their quest for moral perfection, Rabbi Yochanan charged his students with the task of identifying the single character trait that they should strive to master as a springboard for the mastery of other virtuous character traits. Along to road to self-improvement, it is wisest to concentrate our efforts on perfecting only one facet of our personality, no matter how long it takes, since after that, the mastery of other traits becomes an attainable goal. If we would attempt to master multiple attributes simultaneously, it is likely that we will succeed in mastering none of them.

Rabbi Yonah proceeds to explain and elaborate on each of the students’ suggestions:

"Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye" – This means the practicing of charitable behavior.

"Rabbi Yehoshuah says: A good friend" – It is easy to befriend a single person, and from this devoted friendship, to develop a love for all people.

"Rabbi Yose says: A good neighbor" – Begin by befriending your neighbors, and, having achieved this, you can succeed in developing a love for other people.

"Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the consequences of his deeds" – Before you take any action, stop to consider what it may lead to. This habit will prevent you from committing a great number of sins.

"Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart" – Develop an attitude of patience and inner harmony, regardless of the events that are taking place around you.

Rabbi Yochanan’s objective was to have his students isolate a single aspect on which to focus for moral improvement, and then to build on their successes. As we develop our personal plans for self-improvement for the upcoming year, we should likewise aim for gradual, modest achievements, rather than attempt to make sudden, dramatic changes.

Return to Sin

We have resolved not to repeat a given sin, and yet we realize that we have made similar commitments in the past, and have not managed to fulfill them. This awareness of past relapses into sin fill us with uncertainty: Will G-d accept our teshuvah if we later return to the very sins that we are now intending to leave behind forever? Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon (892-942, Babylon) addresses this dilemma:

Let me further clarify: If, in the process of teshuvah, a person resolves sincerely that he will not repeat the sin, his teshuvah is accepted. Even if at some later point he falls prey to the machinations of his Evil Inclination, and is once again led to sin, his teshuvah is not voided retroactively. Only those actions that follow his teshuvah will be held against him; however, the sins preceding his teshuvah remain forgiven.

If one has done a complete teshuvah, an honest commitment, based on an earnest intention to refrain from a sin, is alone sufficient to ensure that one will be forgiven.