Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has to be the quintessential Jewish holiday: it’s all about guilt. If we attend services and everything works just right, we may leave with less guilt and more hope. If it doesn’t, we may leave with more guilt than before.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Feeling guilty is part of the process, but not the purpose of Yom Kippur! Here are seven steps toward making Yom Kippur what it’s really supposed to be:
1. Don’t take on guilt that isn’t rightfully yours.
Use the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to review the past year, so that you know what to focus on.
Traditional prayer texts for Yom Kippur list sins that you probably didn’t commit and some attempt to induce free-floating guilt over sins that most of us not only didn’t commit, but couldn’t have committed.
So you need to approach Yom Kippur with clarity about what you’re repenting for.
2. Sort out which sins are which.
Many prayer books quote Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who taught almost two thousand years ago: “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against another person, the Day of Atonement does not atone.”
He meant that repentance and prayer are effective for sins between a person and God, but where any other person has been harmed, repentance begins with righting the wrong. For example, if you had stolen something, you’d need to return it, or pay for it.
3. Begin righting the wrongs.
Theft is an easy example. It’s harder to undo actions that do harm in other ways.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s customary for Jews to apologize for intangible harm to others, such as words spoken in anger. Although we may not have stolen, murdered, or committed adultery, we have almost certainly hurt others through our words.
Jewish tradition holds that if a person sincerely requests forgiveness three times—that is, on three separate occasions—we’re obligated to give it. And in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, because we may want forgiveness for ourselves, we’re especially likely to give it to others.
4. When you ask forgiveness, do it the right way.
That means in person, if at all possible, not by email. Some people send out broadcast emails that say, “If I have wronged you in any way in the past year, I apologize and ask forgiveness.” That doesn’t count. You need to apologize to a specific person, for a specific act.
If apologizing in person is impossible, a phone call or letter may be appropriate. Don’t use a text message or, heaven forfend, Twitter (with one possible exception).
Make it a genuine apology. A genuine apology is, “It was wrong of me to… and I’m sorry. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? A fake apology is the celebrity kind that puts the burden on the supposed recipient: “I’m sorry if you took offense at what I said/did.”
5. Apologize in the right setting.
If the last two steps seemed hard, this one may be even harder. When an offense took place in public, the apology may need to be given in public as well.
This is where the Twitter exception comes in: if you slammed someone on Twitter, apologize directly and privately first, and then post it on Twitter.
6. Resolve to do better.
Instead of ending Yom Kippur with guilt about what you did (or didn’t do), plan to do better in the new year. If you were thoughtless or uncharitable, resolve to be more thoughtful and charitable. If you were dishonest, resolve to be more honest. Tradition says that full repentance takes place when you have the opportunity commit the sin again, but don’t.
7. Know that you’re not alone.
The Yom Kippur ritual described in the Torah was an almost totally collective atonement. Although we no longer sacrifice animals to atone, the confessions in the Yom Kippur liturgy are all framed in the first-person plural: “We have sinned. We have transgressed.” As you resolve to do better, feel that you’re part of a community of people who are all trying to do better.