Tis the season......for doing teshuvah, that is. We are currently in the middle of the Days of Awe, the period between between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which Jews are to make up for inadequacies, ask where we are right now, and where we're going. It is the epitome of spiritual introspection and awareness in the Jewish religion. One aspect is to atone for wrongs committed in the previous year. How do we go about that in Judaism? By doing teshuvah. I would surmise that there are many that think that making up for one's mistakes simply means saying "sorry." Simply saying "sorry" is not teshuvah. Well, why not? You've recognized your wrongdoing. You feel a sense of remorse. You even muster the courage to confront the person you have wronged and you utter the words "I wronged you" and "I am sorry." Why isn't it enough to simply say "sorry"?
Let's start with a simple question: How do I know you're sorry? Just because you say it doesn't make it so. Let's take an example that is unfortunately all too common: domestic abuse. An individual beats their spouse. The abuser says "I am sorry," but returns to abusive behavior shortly thereafter. What good does saying "I am sorry" do when your fist is still striking the person you supposedly care about? We don't even need to go to such extremes to realize that superficially saying "sorry" is all too commonplace. The individual expresses remorse, but reverts right back to the same behavior. The words "I am sorry" go from being a step in truly making up for one's misdeeds to becoming a social nicety.
Yes, it is absolutely true that confronting the person who has been wronged is a step in the teshuvah process, but it sure isn't the last step. If you stop at saying "I am sorry," you haven't truly mended your ways. You have simply absconded from taking any responsibility from your actions. If you are truly sorry, you will end up doing two things: 1) doing your utmost to undo the damage done, and 2) working on not committing the same shortcoming. What does this look like in practice?
It depends on whether you have wronged G-d or another human being. According to the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9), "For sins between man and G-d (e.g., eating non-kosher food), Yom Kippur atones." Although that might sound easy, it's really not so much because remember, G-d is omniscient, so He will know if you are lying or not. Looking at the rest of the Yoma 8:9, it's even more difficult if you have wronged another human being because "Yom Kippur does not atone until you have appeased one's fellow" (ibid). After you have said "I am sorry," you have to recompense the individual who was wronged. For instance, if one stole or defrauded, that individual has to return the stolen goods and then some. Even if the damage has been undone, the offense is not forgiven until he asks for the victim's pardon (Bava Kamma 8:7). This does imply that even if the victim forgave you without you apologizing, you still have to verbally confess. Why? Because it's not simply about undoing the wrong done. It is about transforming oneself in the process.
That is why the final step of teshuvah is working like mad to make sure you don't commit the same offense again. How do we know the penitent is resolute in re-committing the shortcoming? "If the opportunity to commit the same sin presents itself on two occasions and the sinner does not yield to it (Talmud, Yoma 86b)." I don't think the Talmud literally meant after two times, because "What if you do it again after being tempted for a third time?" Rather, there is some sort of tangible action to illustrate that one is serious in not screwing up in that fashion for yet another time (Lechem Mishneh on Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:2). Another way we can show our repentance is by taking that particular shortcoming and running in the opposite direction by doing good (Sha'arei Teshuvah 1:35). For instance, if one were previously a terrible gossiper, they should not only study the laws of Jewish speech ethics, but also put that into action and work on speaking words of loving-kindness. If it's too much to go in the opposite direction in this particular shortcoming at the moment, then increase your good deeds in other areas until you can improve upon the shortcoming (Maimonides, MT, "Laws of Repentance," 2:4).
Talk is cheap unless you back it up with action. Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word lishuv, which means "to return [to one's good self]." The beauty of this time of year is that we are not pawns of the gods or subject to "what fate has in store for us." Although it comes with its fair share of obstacles, we have the power to make ourselves into better human beings. The time is upon us to change for the better. Are you up for the challenge?