Teshuvah Doesn’t Just Mean Saying “I’m Sorry”

I no longer just say “I’m sorry” nor do I request it from my toddler. Instead, we try to reflect on the true meaning of Teshuvah. Many of us have been raised to believe that during Rosh Hashanah, and especially Yom Kippur, our focus should be on repentance and saying we are sorry.

Every Yom Kippur, our Facebook newsfeed fills up with general statements of “I am sorry to those who I have I wronged in the past year”. Yet, the wordTeshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance”. According to many sources, the more accurate translation is “return” and signifies a return to the original state (Chabbad, Aish). Is just saying “I’m sorry” really what the High Holy days are about?

When young children are forced to say “I’m sorry” they don’t always understand why they are saying this phrase, nor are they given a solution to avoid the transgression in the first place. We can look to the Jewish scholar, Maimonides, who described four steps to Teshuvah, to help guide us.

Steps to Teshuvah:

    1. Stop: Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
    2. Verbalize: Verbally confess and address the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.
    3. Regret:  Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others.
    4. Make a Plan: Devise a plan to handle the situation better next time and a solution to avoid the wrongdoing in the first place.

In schools and at home, we can take the opportunity to help children by giving them the language and the vocabulary to recognize transgressions and give them tools to help solve or rectify the situation. We can look at a common situation that occurs with toddlers to help us understand how to use the steps of Teshuvah with our children. When toddlers hit, they do so out of frustration, not because they are malicious or they truly want to hurt the other person. Use the steps of Teshuvah in this situation: stop the behavior immediately (stop the hitting). Verbalize what just happened “I see that you are frustrated and that you hit your friend.” Explain the result of the behavior “When you hit your friend you hurt them and make them cry.” You can have the child say “I’m sorry”, but also have the child try to rectify the situation and take action. They can ask “how can I make you feel better?”  Then help the child find a solution to avoid the frustration in the first place or deal with the frustration in a better way: taking turns, playing with another toy or friend, find an adult, etc.

True Teshuvah can be difficult. We often are quick to apologize to our loved ones when we hurt them, but how often do we take a moment to reflect on our behavior and the results of our actions and commit to changing our behavior?  Although we can’t change others’ behavior, believe me I have tried, we can change our behavior and the way we interact and react to others. Since having my daughter, this idea of introspection and reflection is especially important to me because the way I interact with my husband and those around me affects the way my daughter will interact with people. Our children learn from us whether we intend it or not. Modeling the steps of Teshuvah in our everyday interactions can help strengthen the relationships we have with our loved ones and our relationship with G-d. I no longer just say I’m sorry when I transgress but instead figure out how to truly make the other person feel better and try to become a better person in the process.

Finding Your Family Value

Every year, for as long as I can remember, my parents have hosted an open house for Rosh Hashanah. There are always the familiar faces of friends and family who have consistently attended for as long as I can remember, but every year there are also new faces, guests that we might be meeting for the first or second time. My parents are incredibly welcoming and inclusive. If they hear of someone who does not have anywhere to go for a holiday they invite and welcome them into their home. This tradition of having an open house, a truly open house, one in which it is important to create a community that welcomes people, has been instilled in me from an early age. My parents believe there is always room for one, or in their case, a lot more. They led and taught by example the beautiful Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests into your home.

In my previous blog post, Teshuvah Doesn’t Just Mean Saying “I’m Sorry”, I spoke about how Teshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance” (instead of it’s true meaning, “return”). We can use the idea of Teshuvah to once again help guide us in raising a kind family centered around Jewish values. During the High Holidays, we want to return to our better, kinder, more moral selves. While it is effective to teach values by modeling behavior and leading by example, we often get caught up in our busy lives and don’t always take the time to really highlight and teach those values. To help guide our children in this process of returning to a better self, we can choose one or two Jewish values to focus on for a year. We can set an intention for our family.

Before or during the High Holidays consider having a family meeting. Discuss with your family the theme of returning to a better self. Give a few examples of Jewish values that are important to you (see below for some examples) and ask for suggestions from your family members. What values do your children think are important? What actions do they perform or want to perform? Vote on which values your family wants to focus on during the year. Once a value is chosen, ask for specific examples of how your family can live and express this value and set specific measurable goals. Have a few family meetings throughout the year to check-in with each other.

Keep in mind, children often need tangible examples (something they can physically see or do) to learn values. If your family chooses Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, your goal could be to reduce the trash of your household by recycling and composting. In this example you could even assign specific tasks to each member of your family to help encourage regular action and participation. You could keep a chart of how much trash, recycling and compost you have each week to keep track of your progress.

L’shana Tova Umetukah, have a happy and sweet New Year!

Examples of Jewish Values:

  • Hachnasat Orchim: Welcoming guests
  • Gemilut Chasadim: Acts of loving kindness
  • Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim: Kindness to animals
  • Shalom Bayit: Peaceful home
  • Bikur Cholim: Visiting the sick
  • Kibbud Av V’Eim: Honoring your parents