Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews offer prayers of contrition. Proclamations of remorse serve not only to apologise to the offended party but are also offered in the hope that the life of the penitent can return to normality as quickly as possible. But, does saying “sorry” guarantee a passport to normality? Is a statement of remorse equivalent to being repentant? In sum, what is repentance?
In religious terms repentance is a pre-requisite for divine forgiveness and mercy - God will not pardon us unconditionally but waits for us to repent. In repentance, we must experience genuine remorse for the wrong we have committed and then convert our penitential energy into positive acts.
So, there are two stages in the repentance process. Firstly, a negative stage: ceasing to do evil and, secondly, a positive stage: doing good.
In Judaism, penitential energy is summarised in one word - Teshuvah, which literally means returning. The motion of turning implies that sin is not an immovable stain but a straying from the right path and that by the effort of turning, the sinner can redirect his destiny. “‘Return unto Me and I shall return unto you’ says the Lord” (Malachi 3:7). God urges Israel to repent and not to be ashamed to do so because children should not be ashamed to return to a parent who loves them (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:24).
Teshuvah results in forgiveness because God desires our repentance. The rabbis describe God’s appeal in these words, “my sons, open for Me an aperture of repentance as narrow as the eye of a needle and I will open for you gates through which wagons and coaches can pass through”
We praise you, O Lord, who shows mercy and compassion to all. Amen.