At the core of Jewish tradition is the charge for us to be able to say to ourselves and to another person that we were wrong, and also to be able to say to ourselves that we are willing to change so that it will never happen again. When we have done something wrong, when we have hurt someone else or hurt ourselves, and when we are unhappy with how we have acted, t’shuvah is the solution. 

T’shuvah, while frequently translated as “repent,” has its Hebrew roots in the verb, “to turn.” When we have done something wrong, we need to turn to the other direction and commit to not wronging again. In other words, t’shuvah can best be understood as returning to friendship with the person we hurt and returning to a closeness with God. Our goal with t’shuvah, then, is getting back on the path toward becoming the best we can become.

Saadia Gaon, the famous Talmudic scholar and philosopher, taught that the process of t’shuvah has four steps: (1) admitting that you have done wrong and committing to never repeating the action; (2) feeling bad about the hurt you have caused; (3) asking the person you wronged, and God, to forgive you; and (4) finding your own way to never repeat the action.

What’s important about t’shuvah, then, is our awareness of our actions. Tradition teaches that with our awareness, if we were to apologize for our actions three times with intent and meaning, then we would be forgiven by God.

“But repentance (t’shuvah), prayer (t’filah), and charity (u’tzedakah) temper judgement’s severe decree.” -The Machzor (High Holiday prayer book)

“If we value forgivingness as a character disposition, we should teach our children how to be empathetic.... Probably the best way to socialize our children to be empathetic and forgiving is for us to model these attitudes and behaviors for them.” -Solomon Schimmel, Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness, 2002

We are taught from a very early age to say “I’m sorry” when we do something wrong. Similarly, many people are taught from a very early age to say “I forgive you” to someone who has wronged us and asked for our pardon. This very simple calculus of penitence is at the foundation of some of our earliest lessons. However well intentioned this value is taught, in its simple form, it is also lacking. True repentance, t’shuvah, comes not merely in apologizing for what one has done, but in resolving never to do likewise again. True forgiveness, s’lichah, comes not in accepting another’s remorse for a past hurt or wrong, but in knowing we will never be wronged by that person in such a way again. This lesson is encapsulated in the Jewish tradition.

“If one says, ‘I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent,’ such a person will not be given the opportunity to repent. Similarly, if one says, ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will bring atonement,’ for such a person, Yom Kippur will not bring atonement.” -Yoma 85b

 “R. Adda ben Ahaba said, ‘One who has sinned and confesses, but does not repent is like a person holding a dead reptile in his hand. Although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world, his immersion will not cleanse him. However, if he throws it away, then as soon as he immerses himself in a Mikveh, his immersion becomes effective.’” -Ta’anit 16a

 “Friends, it is NOT said of the people of Ninevah, ‘G-d saw their sackcloth and fasting,’ but rather, ‘G-d saw their works that they turned from their evil ways’ (Jonah 3:10). As the prophets said, ‘Rend your hearts, not your garments’ (Joel 2:13).” -Mishna Ta’anit 2:1

 Questions for Reflection:
1. Is it difficult to forgive? Why or why not?
2. How do you rebuild trust with a person that has erred against you?
3. How do you rebuild trust with someone whom you have erred against?
4. How would you incorporate this value within your classroom?
5. What is the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and doing t’shuvah?
6. How does Saadia Gaon’s understanding of t’shuvah help us see this value as a “return”?
7. What things can we do to enhance our awareness of when we have wronged someone?
8. How can you incorporate the value of t’shuvah within the classroom?

When someone else makes a mistake and then tries to correct it, listen to that person, try not to be angry, and give them a chance to be your friend.