This was my column in Congregation Beth Am's Digest this month. I thought others might find it interesting or useful, so here it is...
It’s that time of year again—the time when I’ll see something on Facebook, repeatedly, which is done with a good heart and the best of intentions, but bothers me, nonetheless.
I’m talking about Facebook status updates and messages such as, “If I have offended any of you this past year, please forgive me.” They don’t happen only on Facebook, of course, but they do seem pretty common there. As I said, these are offered with great sincerity, I’m sure, but I think they’re terribly misguided.
Our sages tell us that teshuvah, repentance, is a multistep process. As part of it, we have to confess what we did wrong, and we have to do it in detail. No just saying, “I was greedy.” Instead, we have to say, “I was asked by so-and-so to give to such-and-such cause, and I didn’t because I wanted to go out for dinner that night,” or something like that. And then, if we harmed someone with our misstep, we have to apologize to them, openly and explicitly. We have to repair any damage, if possible, and only then do we have the right to ask for forgiveness from them, or from God.
Teshuvah is more than an apology. Teshuvah is a serious, deep process which is meant, ultimately, to lead to self improvement. That's why our sages teach that a person knows that his or her teshuvah only when he or she doesn't commit the same sin again. The ultimate goal of teshuvah is not to obtain forgiveness from someone else, or to wipe away our sense of guilt. The ultimate goal of teshuvah is to become a better person — the kind of person who would never do such a thing in the first place.
I have a hard time believing that, however good the intentions behind it might be, typing "Please forgive me if I hurt you" into our browsers has any chance of creating that kind of change. In fact, I suspect that, if anything, it might make it less likely to happen, because we will have given ourselves the illusion of having done teshuvah, and so we won't feel the need to do anything else. Why go through the truly difficult, painful work of true teshuvah when we can so easily accomplish it with our keyboards?
The truth is that although Facebook might be quite new, this conversation isn't. The ancient version of easy Facebook teshuvah is actually Yom Kippur services, themselves. There have always been people who think that the words that we say on Yom Kippur are teshuvah. But, the sages of old were clear that just isn't the case. The Day of Atonement does not atone unless we have first made peace with our fellow human beings.
Teshuvah is powerful. Teshuvah is transformative. Teshuvah is beautiful. But, teshuvah is never, ever easy. If it is, then it wasn't teshuvah.
May your Yamim Noraim, your Days of Awe be filled with meaning. And, may they be so because you made the effort to bring meaning to them.
L’Shana Tova u’Metukah – a good and a sweet year to you.