The silence in the desert shattered. Hagar's cries, as her child lay dying of thirst, reverberated to the Heavens. The angel called to her: "The Almighty has heard the cries of the youth where he is there." A well of water materialized, and the life of Ishmael was spared. (Genesis 21:17)

The Midrash says that at that moment, the angels in heaven were mounting a campaign against the survival of Ishmael. In the future, when the Babylonians exiled the Jewish people, they would pass through Arabia. The Jews would ask their Ishmaelite cousins to have compassion and spare a little food. The Arabs, renowned for their hospitality (inherited from our common forefather Abraham), would give the Jews salty food (potato chips!). When the Jews would then request something to drink, they would be given leather bags that ostensibly contained water. However, when they would put them to their lips, the bags turned out to contain pressurized air, which rushed into their lungs, killing many Jews.

At this future scenario, the angels argued with the Almighty as Ishmael was dying in the desert: "How can You possibly save the progenitor of a nation that will later murder your children with thirst?" The answer that God gave - hearing the youth's cries "where he is there" - is the basis for all our hopes to receive forgiveness on Yom Kippur. (This is actually the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana.)

The Almighty always judges a person as he stands at the present time. The fact that God knows the future does not influence that judgment. At this moment, Ishmael deserves to live, and that is all that is pertinent now.

It is common for many people to fast and pray on Yom Kippur - and the very next day it's "back to the beach," with little practical change in one's life. If the Almighty would only peek into the future while we so piously confess our sins on Yom Kippur, the results would be disastrous. However, thanks to the lesson of Ishmael's story, there is hope. The Almighty judges at the present moment without looking at the future. If, right this minute, we sincerely intend to change our attitudes and mend our ways, we can receive atonement immediately.

The key word is sincerity. An entire 25-hour period in which we don't eat or drink, we resemble the angels, totally immersed in spirituality. Every minute of regretting our misdeed provides atonement and cleansing. If it were not such a solemn day, we should dance and sing for joy on Yom Kippur!

But if one's commitment only consists of the willingness to spend one day fasting and praying (albeit not an easy task), that is not enough. It is not realistic to effect real change from one day of prayers. If one sincerely intends to change - even if God sees that in future reality this person's resolve will not last - still that knowledge is overlooked and we are judged by "where he is there."

But we cannot fool the Almighty. A Jew must stand before his Creator on Yom Kippur and proclaims, "I realize I have made mistakes. I appreciate the magnitude of my mistakes and regret them. I have formulated a plan of action to avoid them in the future. I have already begun to implement the plan."

Let us try to conceptualize a practical, realistic approach to repentance.

The Talmud states that the punishment for not wearing the blue strand of tzitzit (which was expensive) is less severe than the consequence of not wearing the white strands (which were cheap). From this we learn an important principle: The more difficult it is to perform a mitzvah, the greater the reward. Conversely, the missed opportunity of an "easy mitzvah" is also great.

That's why, when we try to prepare a plan of action before Yom Kippur, we must keep in mind that "easy" misdeeds are the most severe. Hence we should first clean up the "easy way!"

We can do this by identifying what we want to improve, and dividing them into two categories: easy and difficult. Two examples:

Joe appreciates the importance of keeping a kosher home, but as a lawyer he often takes clients to lunch to discuss their cases. Since there is no kosher restaurant accessible, it is difficult for Joe to maintain strict standards of kashrut outside the home.

Susan finds not cooking on Shabbat to be a challenge. On Saturday morning, she would love to just whip up an omelet and enjoy! Yet she has no problem when it comes to the issue of switching off lights, which can easily be connected to an automatic timer.

The first step in repentance is to firmly commit to doing the mitzvot that are "easy" for you. Then, after a period of a few weeks, an evaluation should be made. Maybe by now there are areas that once seemed hard, but now seem easier. Maybe you can add a few more "easy" aspects. For example, Joe could order the cottage cheese platter, which is a step forward, even though his real goal is to completely avoid eating in a non-kosher establishment. And Susan realizes she doesn't have to cook on Shabbat, since she can cook the food ahead of time and keep it warm on a hotplate.

The goal, of course, is to reach a total commitment. But in practical terms, this often must be a process over time. Eventually, when one is keeping kosher or Shabbat 80-90 percent, it is a reasonable leap to say, "Okay, I'll do it 100 percent."

It is important to start this process before Yom Kippur, so we can stand before the Almighty with a plan already begun.

And remember: The most dangerous period for an astronaut is re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. If you come down too fast you can burn up. Similarly, after the spiritual high of Yom Kippur, one must be careful to descend slowly. The first bit of gossip after Yom Kippur is the most severe...

Based on lectures and writings of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe.