This piece is excerpted from “Repentance and Forgiveness,” which appears in the journal Crosscurrents, and is reprinted with permission.
Teshuvah [return] is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The tradition is not of one mind on the steps one must take to repent of one’s sins. However, almost all agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition of one’s sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét’), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét’), restitution where possible (peira’ón), and confession (vidui).
“Recognition of one’s sins as sins” is an act of one’s intelligence and moral conscience. It involves knowing that certain actions are sinful, recognizing such actions in oneself as more than just lapses of praxis, and analyzing one’s motives for sin as deeply as one can. For example, stealing from someone must be seen not only as a crime but also as a sin against another human and a violation of God’s demands of us within the covenant. It also involves realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of relatedness and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest elements in our being.
“Remorse” is a feeling. It is composed of feelings of regret, of failure to maintain one’s moral standards. It may also encompass feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of despair at our own sinfulness, as well as a feeling of being alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own inner selves.
“Desisting from sin” is neither a moral-intellectual analysis nor a feeling; it is an action. It is a ceasing from sin, a desisting from the patterns of sinful action to which we have become addicted. Desisting from sin involves actually stopping the sinful action, consciously repressing thoughts and fantasies about the sinful activity, and making a firm commitment never to commit the sinful act again.
“Restitution” is the act of making good, as best one can, for any damage done. If one has stolen, one must return the object or pay compensation. If one has damaged another’s reputation, one must attempt to correct the injury to the offended party.
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