Some years ago, an organization asked me to collect stories for a book they hoped to publish. After putting the collection together and giving it to the administrators, they in turn handed it over for perusal to one of their supporters, a freelance journalist who had written many cover stories for national magazines. He responded by calling me up and telling me how awful he thought the work was, and also in informing me that I was in the wrong business. I was hurt by the verbal thrashing.
Several months passed, and one day I received an overseas phone call. It was this same journalist. Grudgingly, I took the call, unsure of what to expect. As it turns out, it was the day before Yom Kippur, and he had called to apologize for his behavior.Needless to say, I was very impressed and was able to put the whole incident behind me.
Various sources discuss the importance of asking forgiveness from others before Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition points out that it does little good to ask forgiveness from G-d when one has harmed one's fellow man. Because it is not G-d Who must extend forgiveness; rather, forgiveness must come from the individual who has been wronged!
According to many commentaries, the Biblical source for the mitzvah of Teshuva is found in this week's Torah portion, Nitzavim. The Torah instructs someone who has transgressed to "return to the L-rd your G-d." This understanding of Teshuva as a process of "return" is embedded in the word itself which (though commonly mistranslated as "repentance") actually means "return." Teshuva is the process by which we reestablish our connection to the Almighty and return to the basic goodness that is human nature.
Judaism, being a religion of action, says it is not enough to "mentally" regret one's misdeeds. On this week's verse that "very close is this (matter of Teshuva) to your mouth," Nachmanides takes this passage literally; he understands that Teshuva requires verbal articulation of our misdeeds.
In instances where someone else was wronged, an apology must be made directly to that person. In instances where we transgressed the Almighty's will, we must privately, with no one listening, confess to our Creator.
If the Rosh Hashana holiday is to accomplish true change - and not just another series of broken new year's resolutions - we must make proper preparations. Thus, there arose a custom during Elul (the month before Rosh Hashana) for individuals to undertake to correct one key aspect of their behavior. The action should be something that, with a bit of serious effort, could realistically be accomplished.
By making a permanent change (even a minor one) in one's behavior, a momentum is created for the New Year. Combined with the special "Slichos" prayers, the recitation of the "Vidui" (the verbal confession before G-d), and the giving of Tzedakah (since the Jewish fiscal year ends the day before Rosh Hashana), one can go into the holidays with a sense of elevation and connectedness.
May it be a good, sweet year for all!