As the High Holidays approach, we’ll soon start to see what has become an annual tradition — umbrella t’shuvah (repentance), most often offered on Facebook. People post to the effect of, "To anyone I might have wronged this year, please accept my heartfelt apology." It’s offered with a good heart and the best of intentions, but I still think it’s misguided.
Our sages tell us that t’shuvah is a multistep process. First, we have to confess what we did wrong, and we have to do it in detail – no just saying, “I was greedy.” Instead, we have to say, “I was asked by so-and-so to give to such-and-such cause, and I didn’t because I wanted to go out for dinner that night,” or something of that sort. And then, if we harmed someone with our misstep, we have to apologize to them, openly and explicitly. We have to repair any damage, if possible, and only then do we have the right to ask for forgiveness from them, or from God.
T’shuvah is more than an apology. T’shuvah is a serious, deep process which is meant, ultimately, to lead to self-improvement.
That's why our sages teach that a person knows that his or her t’shuvah is complete only when he or she doesn't commit the same sin again. The ultimate goal of t’shuvah is not to obtain forgiveness from someone else or to wipe away our sense of guilt. The ultimate goal of t’shuvah is to become a better person – the kind of person who would never do such a thing in the first place.
I have a hard time believing that, however good the intentions behind it might be, typing "Please forgive me if I hurt you" into our browsers has any chance of creating that kind of change. In fact, I worry that, if anything, it might make it less likely to happen, because we will have given ourselves the illusion of having done t’shuvah, and so we won't feel the need to do anything else. Why go through the truly difficult, painful work of true t’shuvah when we can so easily accomplish it with our keyboards?
Although social media might be relatively new, this conversation isn't. The ancient version of easy Facebookt t’shuvah is actually Yom Kippur services themselves. There have always been people who think that the words that we say on Yom Kippur are t’shuvah. But the sages of old were clear that just isn't the case: The Day of Atonement does not atone unless we have first made peace with our fellow human beings.
T’shuvah is powerful. T’shuvah is transformative. T’shuvah is beautiful. But t’shuvah is never, ever easy. If it is, then it isn’t t’shuvah.
May your Yamim Noraim, your Days of Awe, be filled with meaning – and may they be so because you made the effort to bring meaning to them.
Want to hear the other side of this argument? Rabbi Ilyse Glickman explains why she thinks it’s both acceptable and appropriate to make amends online.