09/14/2010 05:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Need to Repent

Failure to repent is much worse than sin. One may have sinned for but a moment, but may fail to repent of it moments without number. Chasidic saying, from the book, Day by Day by Chaim Stern

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which begins at sundown on Friday, Jews around the world repent for the past year's sins, wiping the slate clean for another year. But this year, how about anybody who acted out badly seeking some repentance as a way to start clearing the hateful air? You don't have to be Jewish to ask for forgiveness and to show willingness to change.

I don't attend temple services, although I used to be a rabbi's wife. But I know about this holiday. And Jews in almost all of the 800 or so Reform congregations in the States -- almost a million people -- use the prayerbook my late husband Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote and edited, Gates of Repentance.

This Day of Atonement would be a fitting time for some of the worst offenders -- non-Jews as well -- to show some true repentance, more than the standard, often insincere, often forced "I'm sorry."

And here's a great example of how it can be done:

In 1998 President Clinton had offered a weak apology for the Monica Lewinsky situation. The public didn't buy it. So he offered a stronger, introspective apology at a prayer breakfast in Washington, with an acknowledgment of the need to change. He mentioned that a friend had given him a copy of Gates of Repentance, and mentioned some of his childhood traumas, and then quoted from one of the book's passages:

Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us, turning does not come so easily.

A week later, on September 18, the president sent my husband the manuscript of that speech. As he wrote in the accompanying letter: "I deeply appreciate ... Gates of Repentance. As you know I was very moved by the passage on "turning," and I thank you for your wisdom and spiritual inspiration."

True repentance is more than an apology. It does require "turning," a real effort to change bad behavior. As Chaim wrote in the prayer book: "What is genuine repentance? When an opportunity for transgression occurs and we resist it, not out of fear or weakness, but because we have repented."

Here are the sins, wrongdoings and transgressions we all commit at some time or another, listed alphabetically from Gates of Repentance and read at Yom Kippur services:

The sins of arrogance, bigotry and cynicism; of deceit and egotism, flattery and greed, injustice and jealousy.

Some of us kept grudges, were lustful. Malicious, or narrow-minded.Others were obstinate or possessive, quarrelsome, rancorous, or selfish.There was violence, weakness of will, xenophobia. We yielded to temptation, and showed zeal for bad causes.

I can think of many people in the news who have made weak apologies or none at all for wrongdoings this past year. For starters, I suggest these non-Jews follow President Clinton's lead, and atone in this season of change:

-- Rush Limbaugh, for maligning the president

-- Glenn Beck, for being a rabble-rousing hypocrite

-- Sarah Palin, for inciting hatred and for lying

-- Terry Jones, the man who wanted to burn the Quran

-- Newt Gingrich, for so many reasons, and because he should know better

-- Mel Gibson, for his abuse of almost everybody

-- And the teabaggers who spew hate

That's a start.

I know you can think of other notable transgressors of this past year. They can resist repeating their offenses by making amends and turning their behavior on this Day of Atonement. A way to start afresh in a country that badly needs it.