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Repentance – Accepting for Future

Every year as Yom Kippur approaches and I try to improve my ways, I feel like a liar. I know one of the conditions of repentance is that we must accept not to repeat the sin in the future. But how can I honestly claim this? Most of what I struggle with are small behavioral flaws which I know I won’t be perfect in next year either – things like not losing my cool, concentrating better in my prayers, acting more respectfully towards my parents. Of course, I hope to improve somewhat, but if a condition for repentance is that we accept never to repeat the sin again, I basically know this will not be. If so, is my repentance invalid – a farce?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a very important question. You are completely right, first of all, that the path back to God consists of small, concrete steps. It would be unrealistic to attempt to be perfect tomorrow. That is just not how human beings work. Every step we take is precious to God, and it’s really a lifetime effort to achieve perfection. Thus, your hope to improve slowly and steadily is wonderful, and I wish you much success and Divine assistance in your efforts.

But what of proper repentance? Doesn’t true repentance require a positive acceptance never to return to the sin again? And if that’s not entirely possible for many of our flaws does this mean we are not truly repenting?

My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explained with a very important principle. Maimonides describes true repentance as where “the One who knows hidden things” can testify that the person will never return to his evil ways again (Laws of Repentance 2:2). It sounds very demanding. God Himself must be able to testify that we will never slip again.

But in truth, if we look closely at Maimonides’ words, he did not write that the penitent will never sin again, but that he will not return to his sin. Certainly, anyone might slip tomorrow. But it should not be a returning to the sin. When we repent, whether in big steps or small, we must make a clean break from our past. We should see ourselves as new people; we must disassociate ourselves from our past behavior. We might slip again tomorrow to be sure, but it should not be a returning to our past ways. It will not just be the same old us, falling back on our same old ways. It will be a new challenge – which undeniably we may fail.

Sometimes people attempt to mend their ways but still reminisce about the “good old days” when they used to live it up. That is not the way of repentance. We have to separate ourselves from out past ways, to see ourselves as people who no longer act that way.

Based on this, ideally when we attempt to improve ourselves, we should look for small concrete steps to take. Rather than just struggling with the same old faults we know we cannot be perfect in, we should attempt to find small specific areas within those faults that we think we can mend. We can then attempt to make a true break from the past: Find that area to improve in and then commit to be better. Of course we’re not prophets. It certainly is possible that we’ll slip tomorrow. But our commitment must be that it will not just be a return to our past ways. We are different people today. Our past mistakes are not the “good old days.” They are longer who we are.

I wish you meaningful and uplifting High Holidays.

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