Practical repentance

old habits [old shoes discarded]

by Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Repentance, teshuvah, is a process. We recognize the wrongs that we have done and regret doing them. We communicate both our recognition and our regrets to the person whom we have wronged. We determine that we will not repeat the same actions. And when we are faced with the same situation, we make a different choice. Maimonides offers an example of someone who is successful at repentance: a man who has had an affair and finding himself alone with the same woman, still loving her and still able to rekindle the affair, choosing not to act on that impulse.

As a process, teshuvah is a difficult challenge for us. We do not want to realize that we have done something wrong and we do not want to face up to the consequences. Apologizing to someone makes us feel vulnerable.  Even when we do go through all the steps of recognition, remorse, asking for forgiveness, making restitution, resolving to never do this again, we can still fall down at the final step, again making the same choice that we resolved not to make.

So, we come back to our teshuvah each year, resolving the same things, wanting to make the same changes. We reflect, we are introspective, we are honest with ourselves, we really want to change…and we don’t. Sin, repent, rinse, repeat.

We do not always make the changes that we seek, not because of a lack of will or desire, not because of a lack of prayer or promises, but because of a lack of planning. We need the spiritual side of repentance, but we also need to be much more practical about what is happening when we go through the process of teshuvah.

Recently I read The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg.  Duhigg writes about how the habits in our lives shape everything for good and for bad. We wake up in the morning and do not spend much time about thinking about what comes next, because we automatically get ready for the day. If we had to think through the steps of each and every action of our day, the amount of time that we would need would skyrocket. We also have habits that are less successful for us, the habits that we wish we could change, smoking, not exercising, etc.

Duhigg delineates the steps in changing one a habit: we explore the craving that underlies the habit, we determine the cue for the habit, what routine we follow, and what outcome results. When we have all of this information, we can change the routine and change the outcome.

These steps work to help change simple habits like not eating a cookie every afternoon [Duhigg’s personal example] as well as the more serious habits that we are striving to change.  If we go back to the steps of repentance, we can add to them.  When we recognize what we have done, we can look for the cues, the routines, the outcomes. When we resolve to change, we can formulate a plan for exactly how we will make the change, instead of relying on sheer force of will or removing all opportunities to repeat the same action. Then when we are in the same situation, we can enact our plan and be truly repentant. If we are successful, we will have developed a new habit that sustains itself and replaces the old one.

Duhigg says that one of the keys to change is knowing that we have a choice. We have a choice.  We can choose repentance. We can do more than choose, we can plan and work towards our goal and make 5773 and beyond very different from the past year.

G’mar chatimah tovah! May you be sealed in the book of a good life!

Rabbi Appel is rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. 



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