The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown on Wednesday, starting a 10-day period devoted to self-examination. It is a time when observant Jews seek forgiveness for past sins, from both God and fellow humans, and offer forgiveness to others.
Indeed, near the end of the 10 days, on the night of Yom Kippur, sundown on Oct. 10 this year, these words are said in synagogue:
``I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me.''
Central to this process during the High Holidays is the concept of teshuvah. A Hebrew word usually translated as repentance, teshuvah also encompasses the idea of returning to ideals, both in a practical and spiritual way.
What makes teshuvah possible goes to the core of Jewish faith: the idea that within everyone is a single point of purity, a flame that can't be extinguished no matter what sin is committed. It is never too late, Jews are taught, to turn inward and fan that flame.
``It has to do with the process of change and trying to improve as a human being,'' said Rabbi Marc Margolius of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. ``The route to change is through acceptance and forgiveness of self and others. It requires honesty, being able to accept yourself as you are.
``In a way, it's overcoming denial. If you're afraid of facing the things you don't like about yourself, you'll never change those things.''
Jewish religious literature points to two basic types of misdeeds: those against God and those against man. While wrongs against God can be addressed inwardly, those against other people can be the challenge.
Teshuvah, the tradition holds, requires several steps. One must confess wrongdoing to oneself. One must have regret. One must firmly decide not to behave badly again.
And, in the case of a transgression between two people, one must reach out, because teshuvah means always having to say you're sorry.
``The rabbis teach us that it's not enough to ask God for forgiveness if what you have done wrong was in a relationship with another person,'' said Laura Marshall Sapon, who recently gave a workshop on teshuvah at Germantown Jewish Centre in West Mount Airy. ``To completely clear the slate, you have to go to that person and ask forgiveness.''
It is an endeavor that many Jews do not take lightly.
``It is not done in a playful manner,'' said Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Beth Solomon Suburban in Northeast Philadelphia. ``It is very sincere. People will call one another on the phone and say, `If at all during the year I insulted you in any way, hurt you in any manner, please forgive me.'
``And we must forgive, because if we don't, the sin falls upon us. Look, if the Almighty is so all-merciful and all-forgiving and He forgives us for the sins we have committed during the year, . . . then we can forgive our fellow human beings for some of the mistakes we made among ourselves.''
No one pretends all this self-examination is easy. But failure to recognize one's sins, Jewish tradition suggests, can be worse than committing the sins.
Once the recognition occurs, the healing starts. A person sincerely sorry for past actions is asserting that the sins are not a true picture of him, that they were aberrations.
``That is not to excuse what you've done,'' said Rabbi Margolius, ``but to accept yourself so you can be honest with yourself and others, and through that honesty be able to take steps to change.''
Of course, the ideal is to think before you act. But there is comfort in knowing that even the worst sinner has a chance at redemption.
``There is a saying that even if you repent on the day before you die, you are forgiven,'' said Sapon. ``That raises the question: How do you know when you'll die?
``And the answer is, you should repent every day.''