The Path of Repentance

Someone asked me:

I was wondering about the proper procedure of the repentance of sins. Are there certain prayers to be said? What is the true way to be forgiven? What does Judaism say about repentance?

I answered as follows:

Ultimately, the most important part of repentance is what we call «abandoning the sin.»

In essence, the classic process of repentance is:

  • realizing the error of sinning and regretting it;
  • quietly confessing it to Hashem;
  • accepting upon yourself to try not to do it again;
  • trying not to do it again.

Those are the most important factors in repentance. If you get the order wrong, Hashem will accept that also. And if you omit any of those except the last one, Hashem will accept it also. The most important element is trying to stay away from the sin.

It is also important not to focus too much on the sin(s) you committed. The important thing is to focus on doing good, thereby relinquishing sin.

Also, do not be concerned if you make a mistake and slip. No one should expect to be so perfect as to alsways keep a resolution and never make a mistake. It’s impossible. So don’t be too hard on yourself, because it isn’t fair. Hashem knows you are not perfect. He didn’t create you perfect. He created you with the ability to try to do your best, and He does not expect more than that.

There is a story of a great Rabbi who said, «Hashem, I sinned today, but tomorrow I shall not sin again. I know I said this yesterday as well, but this time I mean it!»

He used to say that every night. But many nights he stood at a slightly better level than he did the night before. And that’s all that Hashem asks of us.

Repentance is not a complicated process. In your heart, you know how to do it, and you know you can do it.

A man once went to the Rabbi of Kotzk, and said to him, «I sinned. What should I do?»

The Rebbe answered him, «Why, repent, of course!»

«But I’m unlearned,» said the man, «and I don’t know how to repent!»

«If you’re so unlearned,» asked the Kotzker Rebbe, «how did you know you were sinning?»

Said the man, «Actually, I didn’t know at the time. I sinned, and afterwards I found out that I had sinned.»

«So do the same thing here,» the Rebbe told him. «Repent, and afterwards you’ll find out how to repent.»

The long and the short of it is: Repentance is not all that complicated or problematic. Deep in your heart, you know how to repent.

And when you are ready for the fourth step, bear in mind that you should not try to rectify too many sins at once. A complete makeover takes time, and it is best to focus on one or a few things at a time. Trying to do too much at once will almost certainly result in failure, and possibly depression.

But if you focus on one thing at a time, you are more likely to succeed. And yes, Hashem not only accepts this, He delights in it.

And remember, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Resolve to fix one thing at a time, no more. Take it slow.

The man responded to this and emailed me again, as follows:

Are you saying that forgiveness is granted if you realize your sin and confess and apologize to G-d, even though G-d knows that you will inevitably sin again? Even though you claim to not do it again, and mean it with all your heart and soul, but inevitably you do the same thing again, G-d does not get angry at you for lying to him?

To which I responded:

If you repent and you intend to do the best you can not to sin, that’s not a lie — even if you later fall and sin again.

G-d knows our natures and our inclinations, as well as our strengths and frailties. (He created them, after all!)

And the truth is that if you find it hard to stop sinning, G-d also accepts your effort to not sin for a specific period of time.

In other words, you might decide one day that «I will not do this sin today.» You know you might do it tomorrow, but at least today you will not sin. For that day you will have accomplished something great! And who knows, maybe you won’t sin tomorrow either. And maybe you will. So a few days later you’ll try another day without sinning. Those days are precious to Hashem!

And eventually, if you can, you’ll move it up to two days without sinning. And then maybe three, and maybe finally you’ll get used to not sinning. This is a healthy way, and it’s a realistic way.

In fact, what many people do is start with one hour a day, for every day. I know of a group of women in a local Jewish community that meets every so often to discuss their spiritual growth. That entire group of women agreed to set aside one hour a day during which they will not get angry.

Other groups advocate stipulating one hour a day during which they will speak no gossip.

The point is to slowly, eventually, expand that until it becomes second nature, and you no longer, as a rule, do that sin. If you do it this way, it is not at all «inevitable that you will sin.» But even if you do, you simply try once again not to.

One good method to use is to stay away from situations that lead you to sin. For example, if you find it hard to resist stopping into your local fast food restaurant and buying some non-kosher food, take a detour and don’t walk or drive past that restaurant (if possible). If talking to a certain person often causes you to speak profanity or gossip, you are better off not speaking to that person too much.

I have a friend who was once trying to tell me something nasty about someone we both dislike. Since he was a friend, I was able to tell him, «Please — I have recently decided not to speak or hear loshon hara (evil talk, gossip, slander, etc.)!» He understood, and he stopped. You can’t do this with everyone, and some people you will simply have to stay away from. We probably all know at least one person who loves to peddle stories. It’s unfortunate, of course, and it also makes our work harder.

Possibly the most important and best method is to stay away from sin by doing good. If you keep yourself busy doing good things, you won’t have time or energy to sin very much.

There was a Rabbi who used to tell his followers, «I want you to be simply too busy to do any sins!»

No matter what method you use, don’t think it means you will never make a mistake, that you will never fail. Everyone fails, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. The trick is to pick yourself up afterwards and keep on going. That is how King Solomon describes a righteous person: «The righteous fall even seven times, but they get up each time. The wicked, however, are overcome by evil» (Proverbs 24:16).

So we try, we often fail, but we try again. Hashem judges us not on our successes, but on our honest attempts. Not only that, but just the act of getting up and trying again is in itself the accomplishment of something good, and this also refines a person, as well as earns him reward in the World To Come.

You can appear in Heaven, after a long life, full of sins, and be accepted into Heaven! Because you regretted the sins, you honestly tried not to commit those sins again, and you picked yourself up after committing those sins and tried yet again not to do them!

Great and holy people can simply make a decision and then always stick to it (or at least stick to it most of the time). Some of us are not at that level yet. So we do it bit by bit, and one at a time.

Hashem loves and accepts that, because we are trying our best. That’s all that Hashem wants of us!

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