Sign In Forgot Password

Kol Nidre 5784 • T’shuvah

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

The corner of Market and Powell Streets in downtown San Francisco is a popular tourist destination: it’s the origination point for the Powell Street Cable Car. Head over there any summer day and you’ll see a long line of sweat-shirted out-of-towners, braving the fog, and waiting to board one of the Bay Area’s most popular tourist activity.

Those tourists are well entertained as they wait. Jugglers, amateur musicians, and the people who make animals out of balloons walk among the throngs of people curved along the base of Powell Street. And then there’s the one lonely man who stays closer to Market Street. No one talks to him. Everyone avoids making eye contact with him. He carries a sign and repeats the same two words over and over: Repent Now!

I lived in San Francisco for many years and brought visitors to this spot repeatedly. We’d stay for a few minutes and then walk uphill a few blocks where it was possible to board the cable car without waiting in line. While I was playing tour guide, before we moved uphill, I too, avoided the man with the sign. Did I think of him as just another one of the fanatics who lived in San Francisco? Was I bothered by his attempt to interrupt the fun and revelry? Or was there some nagging truth to the words he uttered and carried high for everyone to see? Repent Now.

This evening we begin Yom Kippur, the culmination of the Aseret Yemai T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. These are the days on the Jewish calendar that demand that we turn away from the actions of which we are not proud – what we might call our misdeeds (sins is too heavy of a word) – and learn to make amends for our past actions.

We often think of our own t’shuvah as a two-step process – ask for forgiveness from the person we have hurt and then ask for forgiveness from God. As we have been taught, “Yom Kippur atones only for sins between a person and God. To atone for sins against another person, we must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs we committed, if that is possible.”[1]

While these are necessary parts of t’shuvah, our tradi­tion recognizes five elements that make up true t’shuvah:

  1. Recognizing one’s behavior as deeply problematic. We must confront our dark side – to acknowledge that certain actions are not merely lapses in judgment.
  2. Feeling remorse. We are to feel true regret for failing to maintain our own moral standards.
  3. Ceasing from doing the unworthy activity. We must choose to stop, repress our fantasies of engaging in the activity, and commit never to do it act again.
  4. Making good. If possible, we must repair damage done.
  5. Confessing both communally and personally.


We fulfill communal confession in syna­gogue as we utter the Yom Kippur prayers. The first part of the personal confession is to apologize to the person we have hurt. This is an absolutely necessary part of the process. More about this later. The other part of the personal confession is with God – whenever we are moved to do so – in synagogue, at home, or when we have a quiet moment to think. Our own repentance is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness: God will not pardon us unconditionally. God waits for us to do t’shuvah. Only then does God forgive.

During the past few years, I have thought a lot about divine forgiveness – and whether or not there are limita­tions to it. Prior to COVID, I was visiting inmates at both the Men’s and Women’s Prisons here in Concord. In the Women’s prison, I met with Nikki once a month. She was incarcerated for killing her ex-husband. In the Men’s prison, I saw Jason, and for many years before, Seth. Jason had sexually abused his own child. Seth, the only one of the three who denied his crime, had been found guilty of murdering his ex-wife. All three are Jews.

Nikki and Jason have shared with me their regrets for their actions. Nikki once said, “If I could walk back into that bar and see my ex, I know now that I would simply turn around and walk out. But I can’t change the past. So here I am.”

Every so often, Jewish inmates will receive a visit from a Chabad rabbi. Chabad rabbis are known for telling inmates who committed murder that God does not forgive them for the crimes they committed and that every day they must repent. From a halakhic perspective, these rabbis may be right. Our tradition teaches that causing the death of another person is such a grave sin that only the death of the sinner atones for that sin.

From a pastoral perspective, however, I think my Chabad colleagues do more damage than good. I remember Nikki telling me that she was crushed, knowing that she has worked so hard on t’shuvah, repentance. Doesn’t God forgive her, she asked me?

I remained non-committal – who was I to say what God does or does not do? But I encouraged her to focus on her life since she committed her crime. Does she feel remorse? Has she apologized to the family members of the victim? Has she moved toward a life of gentleness and kindness? How does she act with other inmates?

A friend recently pointed me to a work called Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, written by the 18th century Italian rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Mesilat Yesharim is his work on piety.

At one point, he asks, “How can a man straighten what has been made crooked after the commis­sion of a sin? If a man killed his neighbor – can he correct this? Can he remove the accomplished fact from actuality?”

He answers: “The sinner must be given time, the punish­ment not involve his utter destruc­tion, and the repentance be given so that the rooting out of the will which prompted the deed be considered a rooting out of the deed itself. When he who is repenting recognizes his sin, and admits it; reflects upon his evil, and repents; wishes that the sin had never been committed; suffers great anguish in his heart because of it; … and departs from it for the future, then … he gains atonement.

“The wrong actually departs from existence and is uprooted. … This is … a function of [God’s] loving kindness,” Luzzatto wrote.

Luzzatto was not making up new Jewish law. A Midrash suggests that God may forgive murder.[2] It describes four categories of sin and repentance: First, if you transgress a positive commandment – such as forgetting to light Shabbat candles – and repent, you are forgiven right away. 

Second, if you transgress a negative command­ment – such as “you shall not steal” – and repent, Yom Kippur atones for the sin.

Third, if you transgress something punishable by death – such as “you shall not murder” – and repent, Yom Kippur suspends the sentence and your sufferings for the rest of the year atone for the sin.

But fourth, if you profane God’s name – such as being dishonest in business with a non-Jew – repentance does not suspend the sentence, and Yom Kippur does not atone for the sin. Only your death cleanses you of the sin. Think about this for a moment. Acting in a way that profanes God’s name, says the midrash, is a graver sin than committing an act that is punishable by death.

The 18th century Polish rabbi, Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau expanded on the notion of God’s forgiveness. He taught that even if God forgives everything, forgive­ness doesn’t mean an absence of punishment. While God may forgive murderers, they still deserve to be in prison.

One inmate I visited back when I lived in New Jersey ultimately came to understand this. On a visit just after Yom Kippur, Audrey asked me why the liturgy is “just so difficult.” “What do you mean?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, “I’ve been here for over 20 years, and have repented every single day during that time. Yet, as I read and prayed the Yom Kippur service, it was all about what I sinner I am. Doesn’t God accept that I’ve changed?”

“Audrey,” I replied, “while you have repented and completely changed your life, and I believe God accepts that in you, there is no escaping the fact that your actions had severe consequences. Once a year you are going to be reminded of that. Can you live with that?” “Wow,” she said, looking shaken, “I hadn’t thought of it like that. I guess I can live with that.”

Let’s return for a moment to Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau’s teaching: That God forgiveseverything. So I ask you this: If God is – or at least – may be willing to forgive us no matter what our sin, why do we find it so difficult to forgive our­selves? We are usually our own worst enemies, beating ourselves up for the mistakes we have made and the pain we have caused. We remember the voices of parents, grandparents, teachers, rabbis, and others who told us we were not good enough, we were a disappointment, and we’d never get it right.

Although we have made mistakes, our motives were probably not evil. We did our best, given what we knew and where we were in that moment. Things may have turn out differently than we thought they would. We intended our acts, but we never intended the evil of their consequences.

And if we cannot forgive ourselves, how can we ever forgive others? When we have been hurt, we tend to hold onto that hurt. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld teaches, “We have the impulse to distance ourselves, quickly, from the source of the pain. The act wounded our sense of self-worth. We wish to ‘write those people off,’ in order to rid our lives of the suggestion that we were not worthy of greater respect.”

The flip side of forgiving those who have hurt us, of course, is asking for forgiveness when we have hurt them. This is sooooo hard. When we see the person we have hurt, we feel sick to our stomach or want to run away. Seeking that forgiveness requires that we open ourselves up and be vulnerable with the person we have harmed. And at the same time, it means being brutally honest with ourselves, letting go of excuses, and reframing the experience that caused pain in the first place.

The latter kind of work is excruciating. Consider anything you have done that hurt someone else. You probably don’t want to go there. You have buried it and made excuses for your behavior: “I was tired. I didn’t mean it. I misunderstood the other person. I wasn’t paying attention. I was hurt. My boss made me do it.” And yet, day in and day out, whenever something reminds you of this event, your heart pounds, you sweat, you might have a panic attack. You are so afraid of going back to that moment. If you could, you’d ask for a do over and say something completely different.

But you can’t. And in truth, we don’t learn and grow and change if we get do overs. Do overs mean that we avoid facing the truth of who we are. Psychotherapist Martha Crawford suggests that by moving way forward instead of back, “we [allow] a failure to remake [ourselves], and remodel [ourselves], and reorganize how [we] see [ourselves].” We are in this room tonight because it is the beginning of Yom Kippur. If there is ever a time to confront the person we see in the mirror, it is now.

And when we avoid apologizing and looking inside, we often turn the situation into something worse than the original moment was. We tell ourselves that we are bad, even terrible, people who don’t deserve to walk the earth. If we accidentally misgendered a person, for instance, the voice in our head says that we are transphobic, even if we may be far from it. What we are is human. No human is perfect; we are all far from it.

So how do we begin to go inside ourselves? The first step is to acknowledge the pain caused. For some people that might not be too hard. They are aware of the hurtful behavior that they are engaged in – losing their temper with their child, stealing from their boss, hiring a relative or close friend over a better qualified candidate, or bullying a classmate.

For others, taking an accounting of the soul, what we call in Hebrew chesbon hanefesh is the way toward the first step. Engaging in a spiritual practice that focuses on introspection may help us get to the place of recognizing harm caused. For an addict, it might happen by hitting rock bottom. For others, it can happen when we suffer a hurt similar to a hurt we caused, or when we get educated about something we were previously unaware of. Any of these might trigger within us the memory of the harm we caused and allow us to take steps to move forward.

Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg, in her extraordinary book, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, observes, “But … often …, understanding the full weight of our behavior doesn’t happen until we have to face the harm we’ve caused directly. Whether that’s because we see the consequences of our actions play out in real time, or because we’ve received a rebuke …, we are forced, finally, to see what we’ve done.”

Of course, when confronted by some we have hurt and told that we have caused harm, we may get defensive as we seek to protect ourselves. We make excuses or minimize the damage done. In truth, what we need to do is hear the other person – to listen, sh’ma, truly listen – and take in what is being said. Remember that the other person is talking about your words or actions, not about you. You are not a loser or a worthless person. Your words hurt someone, and you can do better going forward.

Sometimes the going forward requires tremendous action. You may need to find counseling – or even help pay for the counseling that the hurt person needs if your actions were so severe. Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a 13th century Torah commentator calls this “changing your identity.” He writes that “changing your identity” means “overcoming anger, jealousy, hatred, competitiveness, unhealthy frivolity, greed, and pursuing luxury.” The traits, I would suggest, that stand in your way from moving forward when you have hurt someone.

Maimonides, the 12th century Torah commentator emphasizes that these traits are the ones we need to work on, writing, “these iniquities are more serious and more difficult than those that involve action, because when a person is immersed in these things, it is harder to separate from then.”

Change, real change – t’shuvah – requires that we be vulnerable and willing to take risks. We cannot grow and move forward unless we are willing to do this hard work. And if we don’t, we stagnate; we are likely to repeat the hurtful behavior, avoid apologizing, put up our defenses, and ache inside. Is that really where we want to be?

In Pirkei Avot,[3] Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, the work is plentiful, the reward is great, and the Master of the house – God – is insistent.

It’s a new year. The gates of repentance will close soon. What are you waiting for?


[1]Mishna Yoma 8:9.

[2]Avot d’Rabbi Natan 29.


Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyar 5784