Teshuvah ("returning") is the Jewish concept of repentance and returning to the path of righteousness after one has deviated, or returning to an original state of status quo prior to a transgression occurring. This concept applies whether one has sinned against God, such as by going against the commandments in the Torah, or if one has sinned against another Child of God created in His image.
In a technical sense, Jewish tradition mandates teshuvah whenever there is a transgression against God or another individual, but the High Holy Day season is a time specifically dedicated to this concept of teshuvah and forgiveness in Jewish culture, as it is believed this is when the gates of Heaven are open more than usual. As the Mishnah states, "For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person."
The Teshuvah process begins with the concept of heshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of the soul. This is basically a concept of honest, objective self-examination as one personally reflects upon the last year, the ways we fell short in our walks with God or in our interactions with other people, and how we can correct our course to improve our spiritual relationship with God as well as our interpersonal relationships on earth. Obviously, one may not be able to repair every relationship on earth if the other party is not willing, but God only requires men to make peace insofar as they are able, and what is important is that you did your part with an attitude of sincere humility and genuine regret.
We are all sinners; we all fall short of the glory of God, and teshuvah is something we all have to go through at some point in our lives. True reconciliation is a divine miracle that only happens through His amazing grace. This concept of heshbon hanefesh is a central theme in the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days, as ideally one is already starting the process of introspection to be prepared for the opportunity presented by the Days of Awe in Tishri.
The Torah scholar and philosopher Maimonides outlined three steps for repentance in his writings. These three steps include sincere confession of the sin, genuine regret, and a decision to change course, solemnly vowing not to repeat or perpetuate the action or behavior. Steps such as prayer, fasting, and charitable deeds may also factor into the forgiveness equation in Jewish thinking. According to Maimonides’ writings, one who is truly repentant of their transgressions will refuse to further partake in that action, even if there is another opportunity where one could choose to engage in such behavior but chooses not to. Thus, these aforementioned steps of teshuvah are all essential to our wrongdoing being erased from our record and ultimately to our redemption and salvation with God.
Writings in the Talmud specify that each individual must go through the process of teshuvah, which must consume all of one’s days. This is not something that can be done collectively or on behalf of another person. Ideally, the teshuvah process is to be undertaken with much simchah—joy and enthusiasm—at the concept of being released from the shackles of sin so that we may stand before our Lord with clean and purified hearts. The practice has emerged during the High Holy Days for Jewish people to contact their friends, family members, acquaintances, and anyone else they may have offended during the past year and make whatever amends may be necessary to repair the broken relationship in earthly terms before the matter can be considered fully resolved with God.
In the Jewish line of thinking, confession, genuine regret, and the solemn vow not to repeat the offensive behavior are the only ways to correct course with God. In terms of sins against our brothers and sisters in Yeshua, atonement is only possible once amends have been made with the individual who was offended and that individual has extended forgiveness for the transgression. Teshuvah has to be completed after the fact. One cannot decide to commit an action fully knowing it is sin, then perform teshuvah afterwards to absolve oneself of said sin. This is for sins that happen unintentionally as a result of our carnal hearts and sin polluting our world. Teshuvah is not a free pass or get out of jail card that one can use after intentionally sinning. Per Jewish tradition, God considers sincerity part of the Teshuvah process.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, integrated into the High Holy Day liturgy, states, "U-teshuvah u-tefilah u-tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezeira," which translated to English reads, "But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severity of the decree." Teshuvah is an important ingredient of the High Holy Day season based on the central theme that our fates are sealed upon the conclusion of Yom Kippur as one’s name is either written in the Book of Life or not. Teshuvah is how one can go about blotting out sins on their record so that their name may be inscribed in the Book of Life. Along these lines, there is a special prayer sometimes recited during the High Holy Days focused on Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.
Ideally, after reflecting on the situation and how one’s actions may have contributed to a broken relationship on earth, one should want to apologize to the offended party and seek that individual’s forgiveness. This should not be in some vague sense of "I am sorry if I may have hurt you in some way sometime in the past year"; it should be specific, acknowledge the heartache the other person may be feeling or the implications for the other person’s life, and express genuine regret for committing the transgression to begin with. Jewish tradition also requires doing whatever is within your abilities to undo the damage, whether this is financial compensation or otherwise. It is also customary to give tzedakah to those in need at this time.
If you are approached by someone going through the teshuvah process seeking your forgiveness, Jewish law does require you to forgive the person if the apology seems sincere. "When the one who sinned implores [a person] for pardon, he should grant him pardon wholeheartedly and soulfully. Even if one persecuted him and sinned against him exceedingly, he should not be vengeful and grudge-bearing" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah/Laws of Repentance 2:10).
Someone who has transgressed against another human being in Jewish religious life is bound by Jewish law to attempt forgiveness three times. After three attempts, the burden of the sin is now not on the individual seeking forgiveness but on the individual who refuses to forgive (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Hayim 606:1). In Jewish tradition, complete forgiveness is not granted until it meets the standards of the offended party, not the party seeking forgiveness, as discussed in Mishna Yoma 8:9.
An exception to mandatory forgiveness includes such acts as murder, because the only person required to forgive in that case is dead, and someone cannot forgive on behalf of the deceased. Therefore, murder is considered unforgiveable when the party who would need to grant forgiveness is unable to do so from the grave. The family members of the murdered victim may choose whether to extend forgiveness to the murderer. This is considered an example of a time when forgiveness is optional, but it applies to forgiving the murderer for the pain caused to the loved ones of the victim, not the specific act of murder itself, which the family cannot extend on behalf of their deceased loved one.
Though we serve a God who does hold us to high standards of holiness and has not deemed the law null and void, He is still a loving God of divine mercy and forgiveness who would love nothing more than to celebrate our homecoming and blot sins from our record no matter how much we rebel, disobey, or stray from the straight and narrow. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:17). The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful example of how a rebellious child was welcomed home, and his father rejoiced and sought to restore their relationship. This is how God responds when we turn from our ways sincerely, come home, confess, repent, and genuinely seek His face, no matter how much we may have messed up now.
In terms of our relationships with our mortal brothers and sisters on this fallen earth that is not our home, Yeshua taught us to pray and to "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive anyone who sins against us" (Luke 11:4). The Bible makes it clear in no uncertain terms, numerous times, that we are to forgive others. Yeshua makes that clear in His model prayer in Matthew 6:7–15 and states the consequences of deviating from those instructions in Matthew 6:14–15, where He states the Lord will not forgive us if we do not forgive one another. Forgiveness is imperative and commanded scripturally, even if the other party never forgives, repents, acknowledges the harm done, apologizes, or reconciles. "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13).
Yeshua’s teachings make it clear that forgiveness is still essential in the church today among His believers, His modern-day disciples, and His bride. Besides the model prayer, Yeshua instructed Peter to forgive seventy-seven times if needed, all throughout the year, as often as needed, not only during the Days of Awe. And Yeshua extended mercy and forgiveness during His own ministry on earth. "Child, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5); "Your sins are forgiven" (Luke 7:48); "I do not condemn you" (John 8:11); and "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43) are such examples.
However, forgiveness is not letting others off the hook or giving them a free pass to continue their actions. Accountability is still needed for one’s actions or inactions, and further steps may be needed beyond the initial forgiveness step to fully restore a relationship; forgiveness is not the end of the road but perhaps or often the beginning of a new path going forward. Forgiveness is, however, relinquishing the desire to pursue earthly justice and mercy to God and allowing Him to exact His mercy and His justice, both of which are far more beautiful and fulfilling than limiting ourselves to our emotional, self-seeking definitions of mercy and justice. Forgiveness is surrendering vengeance to God, for vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, either with God or with man, especially if it requires denying the reality in front of us or the dignity of an individual seeking forgiveness from us while continuing to repeat the same offense he or she is seeking forgiveness for.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, generally refers to God’s relationship with humanity in scripture but also applies to human relationships. Reconciliation may not be possible, as that requires two parties, but forgiveness can be completed on your own, between you and God, irrespective of the status of the other person’s heart.
Forgiveness, which is Biblically commanded, is necessary for reconciliation to take place. Forgiveness is one-sided; reconciliation, which is two-sided, goes further and attempts to restore a relationship. Forgiveness may still result in estrangement or broken relationships, and it alone does not repair relationships. Reconciliation, the ideal we should strive for, especially within the church, is two parties coming together to actually repair a broken relationship. Paul tells us that "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Hence the reason reconciliation is not always possible on earth: though we may yearn for justice to roll like a river and be perfectly willing to work things out with someone, if the other party is not willing, there is nothing we can do. We have done all that we can before God. If someone’s heart is not right anyway, it is an exercise in futility to attempt reconciliation.
Yet while reconciliation is important on earth, it is ultimately most important to be reconciled to God. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness that only God can provide. All the forgiveness of man in the here and now will do nothing without the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior. We all need to be reconciled to Him, hence Yeshua’s death on the cross, absolving us of such methods of retribution as outlined in the Torah, or the shedding of blood. Yeshua Himself is the ultimate sacrifice, the atoning sacrifice for all the sins of the world. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
"I forgive you because, when you admit you did wrong, express remorse, and do all you can to make amends, especially when I see that, given the opportunity... to repeat the crime, you do not do so because you have changed, then I see that you have distanced yourself from your deed. Forgiveness means I fundamentally reaffirm your worth as a person, despite the fact that we both know your act was wrong, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote.
"Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them" (John 20:22–23).