Rabbi Oury Cherki
Elul - Repentance and Atonement
We are in the season of Elul – this is the last month of the year.
During the month of Elul we are occupied with Teshuva, repentance. We repent sins and transgressions which we might have committed. But even without sins, there is a yearning in the human soul to return to the original source of life, to return to G-d.
It might even be said that the fact that we repent for our sins at this time is really an excuse, in order to fulfill our desire for a close encounter with G-d. The truth is that there is no need to commit a sin. Even one who has not sinned has an opportunity to express his desire to cling to G-d.
We perform this act at the end of the year. We are not constantly involved in repentance. We always get involved in repentance at the end, when the time has come for reckoning. One good example is at the end of the day. The time right before we go to sleep is good for repentance. It is also good to repent at the end of the week, before Shabbat begins. The end of the month, the day before Rosh Chodesh (the start of a new month), is considered a "minor Yom Kippur" on the Jewish calendar, and it is a time for repentance. So the end of the year is also a natural time to occupy ourselves with repentance.
Daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly – these are the cycles when a man wakes up and does a self-reckoning, in an effort to return to G-d. Repentance has a somewhat sad aspect in that it forces us to review sins that we have committed, to remember the evil that is within us. But our main feeling is one of elation – we have been given an opportunity to mend everything once again.
Repentance provides an opportunity to atone for all sins. What is repentance, and what is the atonement that is linked to it?
Repentance is an act of will – a voluntary act. Until now I was interested in evil, but from now on I have changed. Now I only want what is good. It is relatively easy to perform the act of repentance. It has three elements, each of which can be done in a very short time:
- Regret for the past.
- A decision never to repeat the sin in the future.
- Confession – An oral admission that a person must make before G-d. It is necessary to declare to the Holy One, Blessed be He: Please listen, G-d, I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have done the following. But I am sorry and I will never do it again.
As a result of these actions the record of the sin is erased. One might wonder how it is that it is so easy to change a person's fate. The answer is very simple. Man is inherently good, he basically wants to do good. But when he falters and sins we can say that he has moved away from his true self. When he returns to his basic innate desire, his soul regains its strength. And then it becomes clear that he really is good.
But then the question remains: Why do we need atonement? There are specific actions of atonement that are performed, even including some sins that are so serious that a person must atone for them by bringing a sacrifice. There are more serious cases when atonement includes severe punishment, such as physical suffering or even death.
In Judaism, atonement is considered a secondary factor. If a person can atone for his bad deeds he should, but the repentance may be accepted with or without atonement.
What is meant by the concept, to "atone for a bad deed"?
The purpose of atonement is to make up for the fault in the world that was caused by a bad deed. If somebody does something bad, G-d forbid, there are rituals of atonement whose purpose is to repair the damage that the world has suffered, but the first thing that must come is repentance. Repentance is the main factor, and without repentance no atonement can take place. On the other hand, if a person is prevented by circumstances from performing an act of atonement his repentance is accepted, and the Holy One, Blessed be He continues to love him.
This is the essence of the great gift that we have been given at this time of year. The soul has a natural yearning to return to the Creator. At this time of autumn, the visible world becomes less prominent and the internal world awakens and expands.
We are indeed happy that we have been given the privilege of the days ofTeshuva, repentance, in order for us to make up for all of our sins.