I have been doing some introspection and realize that I have done things in my life that were wrong, and I have harmed other people. How can I face myself after having done these things? And is it possible to rectify the past?


The essence of teshuvah, which literally means “return” to G‑d, is that we are given the ability to actually change what was and to return to our natural state, which is pure and connected to the Divine. Any time a person commits a transgression, it is as if the strands of rope connecting us above are being cut. When we “return,” we are tying thick knots in the rope, reconnecting us with G‑d.

However, when it comes to messing up with other people and transgressing the commandments that apply in human relationships, you first need to rectify the situation with the other person. For example, if you stole something, you need to return that which was stolen, or if that is not possible, you need to pay its equivalent. Or, if you embarrassed someone, you need to ask for forgiveness. Once you have rectified the situation or relationship between you and the other person, you can begin the process of mending your relationship with G‑d.

There is a three-part process to doing teshuvah:

  1. Confession (vidui): where we verbally acknowledge the wrongdoing and vocalize our awareness that we have transgressed G‑d’s will.
  2. Regret (charata): the act of asking forgiveness should not just be words spoken; we need to be truly sorry for what we have done.
  3. Commitment for the future (kabbalah al ha’atid): where we pledge not to do this again, and we really, truly mean it.1

In addition, giving charity in general helps to restore connection between us and our Creator, as it says in the book of Daniel (4:24), “Redeem your sin with charity.”2

You’re Not Bad!

You need to be aware of a common pitfall in doing teshuvah: the possibility of becoming depressed. When we reflect on the wrongs we have done, we might naturally feel down on ourselves. The problem is, feeling depressed about how we have messed up usually causes us to slack and do other sins since we identify with being “bad.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in the book of Tanya, explains what really goes on inside us when we mess up. We have two souls, he says: the “divine soul” which is literally a part of G‑d above, and seeks to elevate itself and reunite itself with G‑d; and a self-serving “animal soul,” which is naturally lazy, pleasure seeking, and full of desires and ego.

When we mess up, it is not really we who are doing wrong; it is just that in that moment, our “animal soul” had the upper hand. In essence every person is good. When we recognize this, it is easier to move forward and do teshuvah.

What About the Future?

So how can we make sure that in the future the divine soul will have the upper hand if we have failed in the past?

First of all, it is vital to recognize that, as in an exercise program, strengthening the divine soul takes consistent practice and commitment. Start slowly. Take small steps. The main thing is to maintain momentum, to keep on learning and growing in your practice. When you get comfortable, ramp up the exercise, and challenge yourself to do a little more. The more learning and good deeds you do, the stronger you will identify with and act upon the drives of your divine soul.

Remember that Judaism is not an all-or-nothing program. Growing in one’s Judaism, even if there are aspects of it that you do not yet keep is not hypocritical. Every additional step, every prayer and good deed generates infinite blessing and infinite spiritual light.

So, practically, how do you go about creating this exercise program?

We can look to Ethics of Our Fathers which describes two necessary elements of spiritual growth (1:6): “Assume for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend.”

  1. Find a personal spiritual mentor (maybe a rabbi or rebbetzin) to whom you can relate. A real live person who knows you and whom you can confide in can help guide you in your spiritual progress. The Talmud tells us that “a prisoner cannot free himself from his prison.”3 A spiritual mentor provides us with the outside help that we need to lift ourselves out from the prison imposed upon us by our own animal souls.
  2. Acquire a friend. It’s tough going it alone. A friend who knows us well can help us see ourselves objectively and support us in using our strengths to overcome our weaknesses and grow in our spirituality.

The Great Merit

Our tradition tells us that “in the place where a ba’al teshuvah (one who has returned) stands, even a completely righteous saint cannot stand.”4 A person who has returned after having been distant is even greater than a righteous person who was always connected; for in the journey back to his or her true self, the returnee has realized a self-sacrifice that the righteous person, who was never challenged in that way, cannot achieve. To go back to our earlier analogy, the thick knots we tie in the rope after it has been severed are actually the strongest parts of the rope.

See The Best Kept Secret in the World from our selection on Teshuvah: The Art of Return.