A Guide to Teshuvah: With Each Other

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 03rd Oct 2022

Interpersonal Teshuvah – beyn adam lachavero

‘There’s always teshuvah,’ my friend said simply, when I told him about mistakes I regretted. It was such an obvious comment, but he made it so quietly that it’s stayed with me all these years.

Though the time for teshuvah is indeed always, and usually the sooner after the hurt the better, Erev Yom Kippur is set aside for making peace among ourselves so that we can come before God in harmony with each other. ‘Even if we’ve only hurt each other with a word,’ says the Shulchan Aruch, we have to acknowledge what we’ve done, seek forgiveness and do what we can to make reparation. We are not entitled to forgive people for wrongs they have done to others than ourselves, though we can, and often should, encourage them to follow where regret and conscience lead.

Offering an apology takes courage. Saying ‘I’m sorry,’ when the words aren’t merely a throwaway placebo, involves admitting that we’re fallible, that in this specific instance we’ve been wrong and that we’ve caused hurt. Our truest apologies come from a place of friendship and love, when remorse makes us keenly aware of the pain we’ve caused and anxious to do everything within our power to mitigate or, if possible, remove it.

It takes no less courage to accept apologies. We don’t have to pretend nothing happened. If the matter is trivial, it probably should be ‘forgiven and forgotten’ (though people have remarkably different ideas about what counts as ‘trivial’) But if there’s real hurt, the interaction is deeper. Forgiving doesn’t mean ignoring injustice or accepting wrong as right. Accepting a sincere apology indicates a decision, probably largely unconscious, not to harbour anger and injury, but to set them aside because the relationship means more, probably far more, than the fault. Yet the memory of the incident may remain with both parties, not as a scab to be re-opened but as an experience from which to learn.

Sometimes forgiving is an inner necessity, because nurturing our injuries risks damaging us further, and a bitter consciousness can ruin our life. Such forgiveness may be less an interaction with the persons who hurt us than a way of freeing ourselves from a burden. As Marina Cantacuzino writes in her recent book Forgiveness, an Exploration:

For me, forgiveness means making peace with things or with people you cannot change. It is therefore about reconciling with psychological pain and relinquishing the burden of hatred and the desire for revenge.

I’m often asked what we can do if our apology is not accepted, or if there’s no opportunity to make it. The Talmud teaches that we should apologise up to three times, if necessary taking three others with us as witnesses. Unless we’ve done something completely beyond remedy, such as utterly destroying the other person’s reputation, the burden is then on them if they refuse to accept us.

But sometimes there’s no one to go to. The person with whom we want to make our peace has died. Or we’ve lost contact. Or we’d have to do so much explaining that we’d inflict more hurt than if we kept quiet, and we’re not entitled to unburden our conscience by causing the other person more pain. In such cases all we can do is speak with our own heart and with God, or, if appropriate with a close friend.

The Talmud contains two helpful sayings attributed to the 3rd century Resh Lakish, who himself changed his ways and turned his life around. ‘When we repent, wrongs we did deliberately become like inadvertent errors.’ Perhaps what he means is that though we meant what we did at the time, had we understood how much hurt our actions would cause we would never have behaved in that way.

His second saying goes further: ‘When we repent, wrongs we did deliberately become like merits.’ The Talmud understands this startling comment to refer to repentance motivated by love: we feel such deep remorse that the very wrong we’ve committed becomes our most powerful teacher. We resolve never ever to do such a thing again and to devote ourselves to its opposite, to doing what’s right and just.

Repentance, the mystics teach, transcends time. It cannot undo what’s done, but it can so transform its meaning that even the bad can become a force for good.

Read the rest of the series:

  1. Language
  2. Injustice
  3. Environment
  4. With Ourselves
  5. With God

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