Rosh Hashanah is tonight and the buzz word throughout Jewish media and, of course, on the lips of rabbis everywhere, is repentance. As familiar as we all are with the word repentance, it is a difficult concept to truly wrap one's minds around.
"Repentance" sounds like a grand and powerful word. In truth, the most important adjective that must be attached to the act of repentance is the word "sincere."
At one time or another, we all experience insincere apologies, and it doesn't make anyone feel better to receive one. Since an apology is critical to the repentance process, an insincere apology does not bode well for true repentance.
One particular story in the Bible highlights the tragedy brought about by an insincere apology: King Saul, the first King of Israel, was responsible both because of a general commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) and a personal directive issued through the words of the prophet Samuel, to completely wipe out the Amalekites, ancient enemies of the Jewish people. While he was victorious over them, "Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, oxen... and lambs, and all that was good..."(I Samuel 15:9).
When confronted the next morning by Samuel (to whom God had already expressed his anger over Saul's disobedience), King Saul's response was to declare that he had listened to the Divine command, capturing King Agag alive and destroying the Amelekites. He then added, "the people took of the spoils, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things" (I Samuel 15:21) to sacrifice to God. Finally, Saul admits his wrong-doing, but still does not take responsibility: "I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of God, and your words; because I feared the people, and hearkened to their voice" (I Samuel 15:24).
Samuel would not, could not, give Saul forgiveness when he was not really sorry for his actions and would not take responsibility for his actions. Samuel had no choice but to tell him his punishment: "God has rent the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you are" (15:28).
By blaming the people, Saul voided his apology. Perhaps, if he had immediately recognized his mistake, admitted it and apologized sincerely, the dynastic line of kingship would not have been removed from his family and given to David.
David brought more than a new bloodline to the throne of Israel, he brought an entirely different attitude as to his rule. The power of kingship made King Saul feel above the law, and it would be inaccurate to say that King David never lost his way either. But their reactions were completely different. When the prophet Nathan came to David to tell him that God was angry at him for putting Uriah the Hittaite (Batsheva's first husband, who had divorced her before going to war) in the line of enemy fire in order that he should be killed (which he was), David's immediate response was to admit his own guilt, "David said to Nathan: 'I have sinned against God'" (II Samuels 12:13), and then says nothing more -- no "buts."
The sages in the Talmud use five phrases from Psalms 19:13-14 to understand the process of repentance: "(1) Who can discern [a person's] errors? (2) From unperceived faults cleanse me. (3) Restrain your servant from intentional sins, that they may not have dominion over me. (4) Then I shall be faultless.(5) I shall be innocent of great transgression." Rabbi Dosetai of Beri reads the words of Psalms 19:13-14 as a dialogue with God. After each of the first four phrases, God informs King David that he has been forgiven. However, when David asks that he be made "'innocent of the great transgression': so my sins may not be recorded.' [God] replied, 'That is impossible... (Sanhedrin 107a)"
True repentance means asking forgiveness for all transgressions, both those intended and unintended, and even from those wrong-doings of which a person is not even wholly aware (think bumping into someone and not noticing). Once he was informed that God was angry with him, King Saul should have recognized that God would not claim he had transgressed if he had not.
If King Saul had acknowledged his error, the damage would have already been done. In the one night that he allowed King Agag to remain alive, Agag seduced a handmaid. Generations later, the descendent of this union became one of the greatest enemies in the history of the Jewish people: Haman. But if King Saul had acknowledged his error, his own personal history might have changed and this one act would not have become an act that crippled his soul.
Repentance is a process that shapes who we are, that makes us better people, that creates links between people or between ourselves and the Divine. It doesn't change the act that was done. Everyone knows that an apology is often insufficient to undo the damage to a hurt friend. And even when people atone and others forgive, the act always exists.