Ask for Forgiveness This Yom Kippur

It's a key concept for everyone, not just those of the Jewish faith

If you mention Yom Kippur to anyone, Jew or Christian, the first thing that usually comes to mind is fasting. But there’s much more to the day than going without food and drink.

According to tradition, Jews receive their “judgment” for the year — health, wealth, happiness, success, longevity.

Seeking forgiveness is a universal elixir for those who desire to improve their character.

If we have the humility to assume we may not have gotten the best possible decree, we spend the next week or so praying, giving charity, and repenting, in hopes of receiving an improved decree by the close of services on Yom Kippur.

Jewish law teaches, however, that we cannot expect forgiveness from God until we have sought forgiveness from the individuals we have harmed.

Observant Jews will be asking God’s forgiveness for ritual shortcomings and slip-ups with regard to observance of Jewish law.

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Maybe we didn’t keep the Sabbath properly. Maybe we ate non-kosher food. This is a category of behavior called “bain adam l’Makom,” meaning between people and God.

We Jews believe these are God’s rules — and since God made them, God can forgive us for any violations of them.

But then there’s the second set of relationships called “bain adam l’chaveiro,” or relationships between a person and his chaver — a friend, neighbor, acquaintance, relative.

Related: Jews Prepare for a Good Year

We cannot ask God’s forgiveness for harm we have caused another human being until we have first asked that person for forgiveness.

This means that observant Jews will spend time in the days prior to Yom Kippur asking loved ones, friends, business associates, neighbors, fellow synagogue attendees, and so on, for forgiveness of any and all wrongdoings that might have been committed over the previous twelve months — for which an apology has not already been made. We do this because we understand the hypocrisy in asking God to forgive us for hurting another person when we have not even tried to make amends to that person ourselves.

A long time ago, there was an ad that said, “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s rye bread.” Well, you don’t have to be Jewish to take this concept to heart.

Prayerful people are constantly asking God for forgiveness of their shortcomings, and hoping God will make them better people.

Related: Honoring the Dead on Yom Kippur

Wouldn’t a great way to kickstart that process be to emulate the Jewish custom of seeking forgiveness prior to Yom Kippur?

Actually, neither Jews nor non-Jews have to wait for Yom Kippur or any specific religious holiday. Forgiveness is something we can seek anytime.

In Twelve Step recovery, making amends, seeking forgiveness for harms caused others, even going back decades, is a fundamental cornerstone of recovery. It’s believed that those who do not make their amends — Alcoholics Anonymous’ eighth and ninth steps — are likely to drink again.

Seeking forgiveness, therefore, is a universal elixir for those who desire to improve their character.

So if you’re observing Yom Kippur, I wish you an easy and meaningful fast. And if Yom Kippur is not part of your religious identity, then feel free to borrow this concept. If there’s someone you’ve harmed, no matter how recently or how long ago, only good things can happen if you reach out and apologize.

Of course, if the apology will cause more harm than good — let’s say you would be talking to an ex-girlfriend who is now married to someone else — it may not be advisable.

Judaism believes we can improve the world one relationship at a time. That’s the universal message of Yom Kippur.

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