On Rosh Hashana, Repentance for the Rest of Us

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a time for repentance. Jews take stock of their lives and assess where they have fallen short in the past year and resolve to do better in the coming one. This process of self-examination and contrition is seen as essential to living a good life and achieving atonement with God.

Why Only Once a Year?

But is once a year enough? Surely, we all make mistakes more often than that! Why should you wait till September to make things right? Why do we set aside a period for this kind of self-evaluation. Shouldn’t we be constantly trying to improve ourselves?

The truth is, we should. But we live in a busy world, and it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and forget about the bigger picture. That’s why it can be helpful to have a specific time set aside for reflection and repentance. It reminds us of what’s important, and it gives us the motivation to make changes in our lives.

While we all make mistakes more often than once a year. But the act of taking time out – even if it’s just for a few days – to really reflect on our lives and where we have gone wrong can be hugely beneficial. It can help us to see the patterns in our behavior that need to be changed, and it can give us the motivation to do better.

Repentance for Non-Jews

Rosh Hashana also has a lot to teach people of other faiths, or atheists. The idea of taking stock of our lives and trying to improve ourselves is something that we can all benefit from. And the Jewish emphasis on forgiveness – both from God and from others – is something that we could all learn from.

For example, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and reflect on their lives. This is similar to the Jewish practice of fasting on Yom Kippur, another Jewish holy day. And like Rosh Hashana, Ramadan is also a time for forgiveness – Muslims are encouraged to seek forgiveness from Allah for their past sins.

Some people say that the Christian practice of confession is also similar to the Jewish tradition of repentance. In confession, Christians admit their sins to a priest, who then gives them absolution. This process of confessing and being forgiven can be seen as a way of starting afresh, just as Rosh Hashana is a time for Jews to start afresh with a clean slate.

Let’s imagine that you have done something that you are ashamed of, and you want to repent for it. The first step is to confess your sin to God. This can be done privately, in your own words. You don’t need to use any specific religious language, just speak from the heart.

Next, you need to ask God for forgiveness. Again, there is no set way of doing this – you can simply say, “God, I am sorry for what I have done, and I ask for your forgiveness.”

It is also important to try to make things right with the people you have hurt. This might involve apologizing to them directly, or it might mean making amends in some other way. For example, if you have stolen something, you should return it or pay for it.

Finally, you need to resolve not to sin again. This is often the hardest part, but it is essential if you are to achieve true repentance.

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Rosh Hashana for Atheists

What if you do not believe in God? Can you still repent?

Yes, you can. Even if you do not believe in God, you can still benefit from the process of self-examination and contrition. And if you have hurt someone, making things right with them can be its own reward. Is morality just for people with faith, after all?

No, of course not. The values of Rosh Hashana – taking stock of our lives, trying to do better, seeking forgiveness – are universal values that we can all benefit from, regardless of our religious beliefs.

So even if you don’t believe in God, make this Rosh Hashana the time for a fresh start. You might be surprised at how good it feels.

A Pattern of Sin, Redemption, Sin, Redemption

Some people are inspired by Rosh Hashana, but then find, the next year, that they didn’t make any of the needed improvements. They find themselves repenting for the same sins and transgressions all over again! Have they failed?

No, they haven’t. Because the point of repentance isn’t to be perfect – it’s to try to be better than we were before. Every time we reflect on our lives and strive to do better, we are moving in the right direction. And even if we never achieve perfection, the effort is always worth it.

That’s why it’s important to make a sincere effort to change your ways after you have repented. Just saying sorry isn’t enough – you need to try to do better. This might mean breaking old habits or learning new ones. It might mean making some sacrifices or reaching out to others for help. Whatever it takes, the important thing is to try to improve yourself, so that next year you can start afresh with a clean slate.

Does Apologizing Make Things Worse?

Sometimes when we seek out someone for forgiveness, we dredge up painful memories for someone we have wronged, and we might even remind them why they were angry in the first place! Is this really what repentance is about?

No, it’s not. The goal of repentance is to make things right, not to make things worse. So if you are seeking forgiveness from someone, it’s important to be sensitive to their feelings and needs.

For example, imagine that you had an argument with a friend, and you said some hurtful things. You might go to them and say, “I’m sorry for what I said, I was wrong, and I hope you can forgive me.” But if your friend is still angry, this might not be the best approach.

A better way might be to start by asking how they are doing and listening to what they have to say. This shows that you care about them and are interested in their wellbeing. Only then, once the conversation has started flowing, should you bring up the subject of your apology.

This approach is called “humblerequest,” and it’s a key part of the Jewish practice of teshuvah (repentance). By showing humility and respect, we can open the door to forgiveness – for both ourselves and others.

The Road to Redemption

“Repentance” comes from the Hebrew word teshuvah, which means “return.” It’s often used to refer to the process of returning to God after we have sinned. But it can also mean returning to our true selves – the selves that we were created to be.

In Jewish tradition, there are four steps to teshuvah:

1. Recognizing that we have done wrong

2. Regretting our actions

3. Resolving to do better in the future

4. Making restitution for our wrongs, if possible

These steps can be applied to any area of our lives – not just our relationship with God, but also our relationships with others, and with ourselves.

The first step is recognizing that we have done wrong. This might seem obvious, but it’s actually the most important step, because without recognition, there can be no change. If we don’t realize that we’re doing something wrong, we’ll never try to do better.

The second step is regretting our actions. This doesn’t mean wallowing in guilt or self-pity – it means taking responsibility for our actions and recognizing the harm that we have caused.

The third step is resolving to do better in the future. This is where the real work of repentance begins, because it’s not enough to simply feel sorry for what we’ve done – we need to change our behavior. That might mean breaking old habits, or learning new ones.

The fourth step is making restitution for our wrongs, if possible. This might involve apologizing to someone we have hurt, or making amends in some other way.

These steps are not always easy, but they are necessary if we want to achieve true teshuvah.

Teshuvah for Criminals

What if you have broken the law, and admitting what you have done, and seeking forgiveness, might put you in legal jeopardy?

In Jewish tradition, there is a concept known as “teshuvah sheleimah,” or “complete repentance.” This is the highest level of teshuvah, and it includes both recognition and regret, as well as restitution.

However, there is also something called “teshuvah lishmah,” which means “repentance for its own sake.” This is when we seek forgiveness not because we expect anything in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

This principle was famously put into practice by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazi regime and was eventually executed for his actions. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in a field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingdom of God.”

Bonhoeffer recognized that true repentance requires us to change our behavior, even if it comes at a high cost. And he was willing to pay that cost, even with his life.

Ten Steps to Make Repentance Meaningful

It’s a difficult process. Here are ten things to think about as you try to forgive yourself, to seek forgiveness from others and make the next year better:

  1. Understand why you did it: What were the circumstances that led you to do what you did? Can you see how your actions were a reaction to something that happened, or to the way you were feeling at the time? If you can understand why you did it, you will be less likely to do it again.
  2. Accept responsibility: It is important to take responsibility for your actions. This doesn’t mean beating yourself up – it just means recognizing that you are capable of making mistakes, and that you are the only one who can change your behavior.
  3. Make amends: If you have hurt someone, try to make things right with them. This might involve apologizing directly, or it might mean making amends in some other way. For example, if you have stolen something, you should return it or pay for it.
  4. Forgive yourself: This is often the hardest part, but it is essential if you are to achieve true repentance.
  5. Resolve not to sin again: This is often the hardest part, but it is essential if you are to achieve true repentance.
  6. Reflect on your life: Take some time to think about your life, and what you want to change about it.
  7. Set goals: Once you have reflected on your life, set some goals for yourself – things you want to accomplish in the next year, or in the next stage of your life.
  8. Make a plan: In order to achieve your goals, you need to have a plan. What steps do you need to take to reach your goal? What resources do you need?
  9. Take action: It’s not enough to make a plan – you need to take action and follow through on it. This might mean making some tough choices, or facing up to some difficult challenges. But if you don’t act, your goals will never become reality.
  10. Persevere: Finally, don’t give up! Even if you stumble along the way, or find yourself slipping back into old habits, don’t lose hope. Remember that repentance is a journey, not a destination, and as long as you are moving in the right direction, you will ultimately get where you want to be.

Rosh Hashana is a special time, but it’s not the only time for repentance. The process of self-reflection and change should be an ongoing one, throughout the year. And every year, Rosh Hashana can serve as a reminder of that goal, and a motivator to keep moving forward.

So, even if you are not Jewish, or even if you are not religious at all, there is still much that Rosh Hashana can teach you about repentance and forgiveness. And who knows? Maybe this year, you will decide to start your own tradition of self-reflection and renewal.


Content by Audere. Image by Pexels.