Atonement: Reparation for an offense or injury.
Forgiveness: To cease to feel resentment.
Teshuva: Repentance or, literally, “return.”
– Brandeis University
You’ve done someone wrong and you know it. Yom Kippur is approaching. What now? Here’s a quick guide to get you thinking.
As we reflect on the year behind us, local Jewish educators Sholom Ber Munitz, Chava Edelman, Yonina Schlussel, and Brian Avner shared their personal thoughts on forgiveness, atonement and teshuva.
Brian Avner, director of congregational learning at Congregation Shalom
Avner defines the returning process of teshuva as a return to our “core,” which comprises the Jewish values that guide us.
While forgiveness is between you and somebody else, atonement is about making amends with yourself. “For me, it’s very much a time of introspection, of reflecting about the past year — what went well, and things that I could have done better.”
Yom Kippur is forgiveness between us and G-d, however. All year round, we experience moments of forgiveness between us and others, as well as us and ourselves. But teshuva is a time to take the interpersonal to the holy level.
One of the prayers on Yom Kippur, “Cheit,” is a Hebrew word meaning to miss the target. This archery metaphor reminds us that the High Holidays are about aiming to hit the mark. “It’s an opportunity to refocus and re-aim ourselves toward the target that we want to hit,” Avner said. He reminds us that we are not bad people because we have missed the mark, since even those with good intentions miss it all the time.
Rabbi Sholom Ber Munitz, principal of Bader Hillel Academy
Rabbi Sholom Ber Munitz examines the topic of forgiveness through the lens of an educator, the lens of the Hasidic philosophy, and the Reggio perspective, a pedagogy that treats children as bearers of great potential to grow. Ber Munitz defines forgiveness as a process of restoration: restoring justice, restoring connection, restoring relationships to where the intention originated. While forgiveness is an attempt at restoration, atonement adds a layer by recognizing the process itself.
Teshuva ties these ideas together, serving as a reminder that our past mistakes do not define us. “What happened isn’t who I really am, but a moment of weakness,” Ber Munitz said. “Teshuva is an attempt to elevate yourself. The negative event is no longer negative, because it led to the strengthening of a connection.”
As Ber Munitz observes in the children he teaches, “behavior is just one piece of the puzzle.” If we stay positive and live according to who we really are, we can meet the challenges that G-d knows we have the inner strength to overcome.
Chava Edelman, Hebrew school educator at Milwaukee Community Hebrew School
“When we’re talking about forgiveness and atonement, the first thing I tell people about those words is that they’re really just English translations.” On the other hand, Hebrew words such as “Teshuva” encapsulate an entire idea. In English, forgiveness emits images of crying and beating your chest, while in Hebrew, “teshuva” propels you to the next step, she said. “In Hebrew, it’s an action. It’s empowering. You don’t just need to sit there with the bad feeling, you can do something with it.”
The root of the word teshuva is “return,” which Edelman describes as returning to your godliness. “You’re returning to your essence. The essence of every Jewish person is a piece of G-d. When you think of what it means to be godly, you take action,” Edelman said.
It takes a level of consciousness and mindfulness to contemplate the meaning of returning to your godly essence, which Edelman says Judaism expects from us in the everyday. “How does a godly person go grocery shopping, answer the phone?” These questions reframe all of our behaviors, she said.
“Hashem loves you and wants to hear from you even if you made a mistake.” When working with children, this mindset informs how Edelman navigates conflict. “It helps with the child’s identity, helps them move beyond.”
Yonina Schlussel, teacher with Torah Academy of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Jewish Day School
“We have a soul and a body, but sometimes we don’t live with the soul, whether it’s because of food, anger or technology.” Teshuva is a process of stepping back from the chaos of life and seeing what resonates with your soul, with living in a way that feels right to you, Schlussel said. “Who am I really? Who do I want to be?” are a few of her probing questions.
According to Schlussel, teshuva is an overarching process of which forgiveness and atonement lie beneath. “The first step is about forgiveness of yourself, but recognizing that past decision isn’t where you want to stay. This gives me room to go where I want to go,” she said. To start, Schlussel advises asking yourself, “what do I need to be successful and how, in a compassionate way, can I get there?”
The anger and guilt that come with atonement are not what the high holidays are about, said Schlussel. “Yom Kippur is not a sad day, it’s a reconnection, a re-inspiration process of finding joy.” Schlussel explained that there may be judgment involved, but for Rosh Hashanah there is celebration. “I’m going to dress up and eat good food because G-d sees potential in me to be a better person.”
Similar to Edelman, Schlussel cited the root word of teshuva: shuv. Meaning “to return,” Schlussel said that the journey should return you to your pure, unblemished selves. She described this as “trying to go back to a soul that matches how I define myself.”
Atonement is the last step. “As I go from the inside and I forgive myself, I can look at my relationship with new eyes and bring that same compassion to the people around me and see that they’re also doing the best they can in the moment…‘hurt people hurt people…’ This doesn’t mean others can step all over you, but that you can move forward with a fresh start.”
Schlussel said that once she’d found the space to re-negotiate some of her relationships to healthy places, she can let go of the negativity that holds her back. This, she explained, is a natural outgrowth of the teshuva process, which ultimately seals the returning process.
Like Edelman said, the backbone of this compassionate forgiveness is every Jew’s innate relationship to G-d. “Avinu malkeinu-god is our father and our king. The judge is your dad, so he’s gonna do what’s best for you to help you grow,” Schlussel said.
Rabbi Hannah Wallick, vice president of leadership and global for Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Rabbi Wallick’s interview highlighted the avoidance of empty apologies more than anything. Before any effective change can take place, one must identify the problematic behavioral patterns that they repeat. The next step — action — is often missed in the introspection of atonement. “Some people can even acknowledge where they need to change, but they can’t make the change,” she said.
Wallick recommends tapping into as many cues as possible to stay mindful of repetitive mistakes and eventually be more intentional. For instance, Judaism’s visual cue to wear tzitzit to remember to follow the commandments. Or asking a loved one to tug on their ear when you’re slipping up in conversation. She also advises keeping a journal to track your inner changes throughout this process.
According to Wallick, forgiveness is best approached with a “spirit of generosity,” meaning to extend the understanding you have for yourself to others. “It’s hard to summon that spirit of generosity when you’re not sure if a tendency is going to repeat itself,” Wallick said. “Forgive others because you would want G-d to forgive you.”
Wallick says, though, “before you ask forgiveness of G-d, you need to ask forgiveness of those in the human realm.”
Wallick calls this spirit of generosity “turning your chair around,” something she learned from Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Outward Mindset training. The metaphor envisions two people who reinforce each other’s negative behaviors, sitting with their backs to each other. The process of turning your chair around ultimately sends a message to the other person that they acknowledge how difficult it is to forgive, which is why someone must take the first step.
“It’s a chain reaction,” Wallick said. During the Jewish New Year, Wallick advises turning your chair around, whether it’s one or both parties involved. “I think what this season is asking you to consider is turning your chair around. I mean, wouldn’t you hope that the people who you’re approaching turn their chairs towards you? So, consider whether you’re able to turn your chair and face somebody else.”
Wallick concluded with a wish for readers: “I really want to wish success to those who have decided to tackle their big issues. The world is built on relationships; that’s in the end the only thing that matters. I wish all of us success in improving our relationships. It’s easy to go through the motions of a holiday, but it’s courageous to acknowledge that you’ve been wronged, that you have a pattern of wrong behavior, and really courageously challenging yourself to work on that behavior.”