One of the most difficult phone calls that I ever made was when I asked someone to forgive me for the numerous arguments that we had had many years beforehand. Ellen* and I had spent several months together at a school in Israel, and rarely in my life had I felt as at odds with a person as I did with Ellen. It seems as if we had daily encounters and, I can now admit, I held a grudge against her for several years.
Calling Ellen was part of that year’s preparations for Rosh Hashanah. After listening to several lectures about the importance of teshuva, repentance, at this time of year, I wanted to fulfill the requirements of repentance that went beyond regret and promising to change (which always felt to me like the New Year’s Resolutions of December 31).
As important as it is to have plans to improve oneself, teshuva is meant to be rigorous, soul-searching process. The Rambam (Maimonides, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), who lived in the 12th century in Spain, outlined it in four steps: Recognize the improper behavior. Verbally confess the behavior, since that makes it more real, even to oneself. Recognize the negative effect of that behavior. Resolve not to continue doing such behavior. If that action effected anyone else, however, the second step, verbal confession, becomes that much more difficult. Before one’s errors can be forgiven by God, they must be forgiven by the “victim,” which may bring one to the awkward situation of having to tell someone that you spread a rumor about them (for example).
Intellectually, I understand that I can and should follow these steps anytime I err. Like many, however, I only think of it when I start reading Rosh Hashanah articles or when random friends call to ask my forgiveness for phantom transgressions: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done in the past year to upset you?” How else can one possibly respond except, “Of course, and please forgive me as well.”
The year that I called Ellen was the year that I resolved to go beyond the platitudes – not, of course, that hollow apologies were ever my intentions. Rather, I often find myself unable to recall whom I might have offended or how. The negativity I felt toward Ellen, however, stayed with me, and I knew I could do something to move forward. So I called, and it was uncomfortable. After all, embarrassing someone while asking their forgiveness becomes a contradiction. In cases when it really will only lead to more hurt and anger, there are some opinions that one should even forgo asking for forgiveness.
The process of teshuva is not a simple one. Like everyone, I often have mixed motives for my behavior. Looking back, I can admit that my desire to contact her had not been completely altruistic. I had wanted to feel like the bigger person. I had wanted her to return my apology with an apology. She didn’t, but by reaching out to seek her forgiveness, I found that I was better able to let go of my own anger towards her. Time passed and, eventually, a friendship formed.
This all occurred many years ago. This year, with Rosh Hashanah only days away, I struggle once again to think of my transgressions. I’ve spoken ill of people. I’ve been short tempered. I’ve been lazy and wasted other people’s time. But I know that by trying to work through this incredible process of teshuva, I will end up a stronger and better me.
*This name has been changed, I think you understand why.
To read more about teshuva during the period of the High Holidays, please visit Jewish Treats.