In my youth I did some horrible things - both unethical and illegal. Is it possible to make amends for having lived a sinful lifestyle? Sometimes I feel so low that I can't imagine how I'll ever get back up. Is my soul permanently stained from all this?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It is never too late. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was known to say: "As long as the flame is burning, we can still make amends."
Teshuva is the Jewish idea of return. When we "do teshuva," we examine our ways, identify those areas where we are losing ground, and return to our own previous state of spiritual purity. And in the process, we return to our connection with the Almighty as well.
Teshuva was created even before the world was created, because God knew that it would be needed. Nothing stands in the way of teshuva, and the very fact that you have made the important step of writing this letter means that you have already begun the process of teshuva.
For successful teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us - even in light of all the mistakes we've made. Realize that God understands you, that He's "cheering you on," and wants to help. Don't feel guilty; any mistakes you've made are part of a growth process to get where you are today. Growth is what God created us for, and even the hardships are the best thing for us. God is not the "big bully in the sky"; He's on your side.
The Talmud states that if you do teshuva out of love, you can even transform your mistakes into mitzvahs (Yoma 86b). Sort of like "dry cleaning for the soul."
The process of Teshuva involves four steps:
Step 1 - Regret. Realizing the extent of the damage and feeling sincere regret.
Step 2 - Cessation. Immediately stopping the harmful action.
Step 3 - Confession. Articulating the mistake and ask for forgiveness.
Step 4 - Resolution. Making a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.
These steps go only so far, however. If our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask their forgiveness.
By the way, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most auspicious time to do Teshuva. Though it can be undertaken at any season of the year, at any time of day.
For a full discussion of this topic, see: www.aish.com/h/hh/gar/