Am I the only one who has trouble repenting?

There is a lot I love about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I love the reminders that we are dust and return to dust. I love the remonstration that “for transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”  I love being reminded that we all fall short of our potential as caring, aware human beings.

But I have trouble repenting.

Basically, I feel like a good person. I try to pay attention to others’ needs. I’m involved in community organizations. I give to a bunch of charities. I’ve chosen work that (most of the time) provides a service to people, or at least doesn’t exploit anyone.

And when it’s high holidays and I’m sitting in services trying to name my sins, I come up with pretty lame stuff. I scraped a car in the gym parking garage and didn’t leave a note for the owner. I could do better at accepting my daughter for who she is. I didn’t stay in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives. (Plus a few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention.)

It mostly seems like pretty minor stuff compared to what other people might need to repent for. Imagine Bernie Madoff on the high holidays? Henry Kissinger? Dick Cheney, if he were Jewish?

Honestly, I think to myself, if the whole world were limited to committing my sins, this planet would be a much better place to live.

And this is of course the sin of arrogance.

Madoff and Kissinger are probably saying the exact same thing: If the whole world were like me, this planet would be a much better place.

The point is not whether I have behaved better or worse than Bernie Madoff.  Gates of Repentance, the Reform Jewish prayer book for the high holy days, says:

“Each person’s abilities are limited by nature and by the circumstances we have had to face. Whether I have done better or worse with my capacities than others with theirs, I cannot judge.

“But I do know that I have failed in many ways to live up to my potentialities and Your demands. Not that You expect the impossible. You do not ask me, ‘Why have you not been great as Moses?’ You do ask me, ‘Why have you not been yourself? Why have you not been true to the best in you?’”

Still, it’s hard. I sit in services trying to think about my sins and I notice that the hem of my skirt is unravelling. Or the person in front of me has a really gorgeous tallit. Or my stomach is starting to rumble.

It’s like looking directly at the sun. You might will yourself to do it, but your eyes reflexively look aside — at the clouds, the sky, the trees, anything but the sun.

(The place where this analogy falls apart is that looking directly at the sun would truly hurt your eyes. But looking at my shortcomings would only hurt my pride.)

Repenting seems like it should be easy. You don’t have to raise $50 million like making a Hollywood movie. You don’t have to learn to operate power tools like building a kitchen cabinet. You don’t even have to move a single muscle — it’s less work than walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, or clicking a mouse, or blinking an eye.

But of course it’s not easy.

I guess the good thing is that the high holidays give us a while to work on this. It’s not just the evening and day of Yom Kippur. It’s not even just the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition gives us the whole month of Elul, and the selichot service before high holidays, and then high holidays themselves.

And if we still don’t get it right, we can keep trying through the entire year.

The Talmud quotes the sage Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah (repentance) are always open.”


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7 Responses to “Am I the only one who has trouble repenting?”

  1. Eric Schwartz Says:

    L’shana tova

  2. Cyma Shapiro Says:

    I’m glad to hear someone else wrestle with the same problem. Every year I have that very same discussion with my family. I chose to use the time to reflect on what I will do differently and how I will behave, not to condemn or flagulate myself before what is portrayed as a vengeful G-d. To that aim, I also prefer to believe that G-d remains only loving and supportive.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Good points! Perhaps similarly, I find that somehow broadening my thought process beyond specific sins is helpful. (Thinking about a longstanding inner fear that makes me act in a way that I don’t like, etc.)

  3. Linda K. Wertheimer Says:

    Terrific, thoughtful post. Maybe it’s just that the High Holy Days at least gets us thinking about what we might do to improve ourselves.

    I had to chuckle yesterday during the Tashlich service with our son, who’s 3. He stood there happily tossing some bread into the old reservoir and eating pieces, too. A friend quipped that our children “eat” our sins, meaning that they essentially absorb their parents’ foibles in some way.

    But I bring it up because of course a young child at this point in his or her life really has nothing of consequence to repent. And yet, the idea of realizing that we can seek forgiveness for what we may have done wrong is a good concept at any age.

    L’shana tova,


  4. Janice Dean Says:

    As a Christian, one of the things that often makes me uncomfortable about my tradition is my perception that many churches seem to fall on one end of the repentance spectrum–either they seem to hyperfocus on the “sinful nature” of human beings and center their services around ideas of repentance and God’s saving grace OR they seem terrified to genuinely admit that we each fall short of the great things, large and small, that God has made us capable of.

    My experience with the Jewish tradition makes me believe that it navigates this much more successfully. There is intentional space for considering how we’ve fallen short and what we can do better (and during the most important holidays, no less), but it is not the singular focus year round. My childhood and adolescent experiences of going to shul with friends informs my approach to repentance as a Christian and, I think, helps me transcend either end of the “repentance spectrum.”

    As always, this post reveals your deep self awareness, and I’m grateful to you for sharing it. How can we act better if we don’t attain to the sort of self awareness that you personify?

    Shana tova!

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