How to Use (and Not Abuse) Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is soon upon us. It is a time in which we focus on teshuvah, traditionally translated as “repentance,” but the Hebrew root is more closely related to “turning.” Teshuvah is the act of turning from past ways and harmful habits to create a new and better future for ourselves. It also involves turning to each other to seek forgiveness for past wrongs.

This last part of teshuvah—seeking and granting forgiveness—is very complicated.

Forgiveness is meant as a means to heal wounds. But the pursuit of forgiveness can sometimes have the opposite effect, and so how we engage with it must be handled delicately and thoughtfully. Here are a few random thoughts on forgiveness:

Forgive yourself first. The first part of teshuvah is to recognize what we have done wrong, whether to ourselves or another person. Once we recognize what we have done, then we will probably feel regret about it. That is ok, feeling regret is an indication that we are on the right track. But that regret should be used for the good, and rather than just live in the regret, we use that feeling to create positive change. And we do that through self-forgiveness.

When we forgive ourselves, we first and foremost recognize that we are human. This is what “atonement” is all about. It’s not about beating ourselves up for “sin,” it’s about recognizing how we have hurt others and why, and how we have been hurt and why, and moving to a place of acceptance and growth and renewal. If we don’t self-forgive, then while we may have been granted forgiveness from another, the hurt and guilt will still be there.

If you have gotten over old wounds and do not need forgiveness for your healing process, then to bring up those wounds may only cause further hurt. Time is a wound healer. You may not still be carrying an old hurt that someone did to you years ago, and they may have become different people in the interim. To then bring up past wrongs when you are not seeking forgiveness only causes bad feelings of upset and guilt that can be worse than the original hurt in the first place.

Also, Yom Kippur is about positive personal growth, not about making ourselves feel bad for what we may have done or not done. Just bringing stuff up to beat yourself up about it is not healthy and not the path of teshuvah.

Forgiveness does not mean acceptance, it simply means that you are not going to let a past wrong bother you anymore. It is possible to forgive someone for what they did to you without condoning the general behavior. Indeed, a granting of forgiveness may come with a tochecha (“rebuke,” “chastisement”) that the behavior is unacceptable and needs to change.

Forgiveness may only be necessary when there is an intention to hurt. Collateral damage is a part of life. There are times we do things and make changes in our life that will ultimately be the best for us. When we make these changes however, we may inadvertently hurt people we care about. The intention in these instances is not to hurt, but hurt feelings may be a by-product anyway. In these cases, if we truly understand the context and the relationship, we can raise the fact that we were hurt without needing forgiveness, and we can acknowledge and accept the hurt we have caused without feeling guilty about it.

Seeking forgiveness without a promise to change is incomplete. If we are granted the gift of forgiveness from one we have wronged, but we do not change our behavior that caused that wrong in the first place, then the forgiveness is incomplete. Think of forgiveness as being granted conditionally. When we are forgiven we must still do the personal work to examine and change our past behaviors. Saying “I’m sorry” is just the first step.

Yom Kippur is just a day. Teshuvah, forgiveness and healing is a process. Holidays are just days in which we hone our spiritual energy in a particular direction to remind us of important values that we really need to be thinking about all the time, and not just on that day. Just as we should be thinking of oppression, liberation and freedom the whole year and not just on Passover, so too do we need to think about repentance and forgiveness the whole year, and not just on Yom Kippur. To request and expect forgiveness on Yom Kippur just because it is THE DAY feels forced and disingenuous. To grant forgiveness just because it is Yom Kippur also feels forced and disingenuous. If anything, seeking forgiveness on the day puts a process of healing in place that continues into the days, weeks and months ahead.

The work of Yom Kippur is not about bringing up hurt just for the sake of bringing up hurts. And it’s not about forgiveness just for the sake of forgiveness. When we engage in the process of seeking and granting forgiveness, it must be for the sake of a greater purpose: becoming better people and strengthening relationships. Anything else will just hurt ourselves and others more.

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