Teshuva: A Discussion Guide
This discussion guide explores the Jewish approach to repentance, drawing on Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance). Included are hands-on activities for younger and older students that deal with guilt and apology.
This is a general discussion guide about Teshuvah including “apology scenarios.”
The student will:
1. Outline the main points of Hilchot Teshuvah.
2. Reflect on the reasons it is difficult to apologize.
3. Describe what makes a “good” apology.
4. Describe several approaches to apologizing.
|1. Read Hilchot Teshuvah:
Pass out copies of Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah for students to review (in a virtual classroom, this can be done by sharing the link here ahead of class). Explain to students that the Rambam explains that Teshuvah (repentance) is a three-step process:
2. Host a Group Discussion: Students are usually surprised that you can do teshuvah by making these three steps in whatever language you want and that we can talk to God whenever we want, not just during the prescribed time for davening (prayer). It is important to dwell on this for a little while because the idea that God is always accessible and that we can always speak to Him, even and especially when we’ve done something wrong, is a very good thing for our relationship with God.
3. Share Examples: Next, it’s a good idea to explain to students that after we do teshuvah our sins become mitzvot because of the teshuvah. This shows us how forgiving and kind God is to us. You can talk about how we should try to be as forgiving as God. After hearing that, the students might be confused. If God forgives us no matter what when we do teshuvah then we can really just do whatever bad things we want and then just say we’re sorry and everything will be okay. The answer is that if you sin and plan to do teshuvah then your teshuvah does not work at all. God is very compassionate and forgiving, but His goal is not to just let us do whatever we want all the time!
4. Teach the Concept of “Teshuvah Gemurah“: There is an even higher level of teshuvah, called “teshuvah gemura”, complete teshuvah. Complete teshuvah is when, after doing teshuvah, you have an opportunity to do the exact same sin, but this time you don’t do it. This time you do the right thing because you did teshuvah. This is a very special type of teshuvah that people don’t usually get a chance to do. Ask the students if anyone ever experienced “teshuvah gemura.” When students realize that they’ve actually done this, it’s extremely exciting. It gives them a real sense of accomplishment in their own spiritual development.
5. Group Discussion and Examples: Now we know that God always forgives us for any sin that we do. What about people? What if we sin in a way that involves hurting another person? Ask the students if they think God forgives us for those sins as well. Let the students debate that question for a minute or two before you tell them that the Rambam says no. God will only forgive us for hurting other people after the other person himself/herself has forgiven us. This means that apologizing to people is an extremely important thing to be able to do. That doesn’t mean it’s easy!
Ask the students on a scale of 1-5 how hard it is to say you’re sorry to someone. Is it easier to say you’re sorry to God or to another person?
Why? Here are some reasons that students might give for why it’s so hard to say you’re sorry:
6. Pair Up: Here’s an interesting strategy to help make it a little easier to apologize when you need to: Get used to it! None of us are perfect. So if we spend a little time every day thinking about it, we can find something we did wrong to someone else. If you try to find someone to apologize for something every single day that will get you in the habit of apologizing and slowly make it a little easier to do.
This is a great place to pair up students in a “chavruta.” Your chavruta or buddy can help you find excuses to apologize or help you realize you need to apologize when you don’t see it yourself. (In a virtual classroom, this can be done by using breakout rooms on Zoom).
In pairs, discuss how to apologize. The Rambam says that when you apologize to someone if they don’t forgive you, you have to try three separate times before you are allowed to give up. Three times does not mean I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It means trying three different ways of apologizing.
There are a lot of variables that change the nature of an apology. Of course, the first and most important thing that determines if someone will forgive you is how you make the apology.
7. Activity (older students): Ask for student volunteers to act out the scenarios below (in person or in a virtual classroom). Two students perform each apology scenario, one will be the “apologizer” and the other, the “apologizee.” After each scenario, discuss how likely it is that the apology will be accepted. How genuine did it sound? Look? What makes a good apology?
9. Activity (younger students): Feel free to make up or have the students make up their own examples in addition to these. Read these one at a time to students and have them fill in the blanks or fill them in yourself, using different students’ names. Then, ask what they would do in each situation.
10. Discussion: Factors that Help Make a Good Apology: · An apology should show the other person that you really feel bad about what happened. · An apology should show that you really understand how the other person feels. · An apology should show that you know your apology doesn’t make what you did go away. That you still understand that what you did may affect this person in a way that you can’t fix.
11. Optional: Extension: If there is extra time, you may want to discuss guilt and what types of behaviors make you feel more or less guilty: This discussion is used to get the students thinking about a few different ethical questions by comparing situations to each other. This is also a good chance to talk about the general topic of guilt. Sometimes feeling guilty helps us become better, but sometimes it just makes us feel down on ourselves and make us feel like there is no point in trying to become better. Discuss with the students when they find that guilt is a good motivator and when they find that it is destructive. Also, if any of the examples remind them of things that they have done or seen others do encourage them to discuss those stories. Which makes you feel the most guilty?
1. A close friend tells you a secret and you accidentally tell someone else.
2. You make a joke about drugs and then realize that your friend, who is in the room, has a parent who is a drug addict.
3. You leave your knapsack on the staircase and your friend slips on it and breaks his leg.
4. You always tease your friend for not doing well in school. She always laughs when you joke with her so you’ve always assumed that she doesn’t mind the jokes. Today she finally started crying when you made a crack about her grade on a test and admitted that it really hurts her every time you make fun of her.
1. You cheated on a test.
2. You found out that the candy machine was broken and if you push a button you’ll get a free bag of potato chips. You go and get the free bag.
3. You “theater hop” at the movies.
4. You lie about your age to get a cheaper ticket at the movies.
1. You start going out with the guy/girl that your close friend likes.
2. Some other friends start making fun of your close friend. You don’t do anything to try to stop them.
3. You’re the best English student in your class. The teacher is allowing your class to take a test in pairs. Your close friend wants to pair up with you, but you picked a different partner.
4. Your other friends don’t want to hang out with your close friend anymore. You decide to go bowling with them even though they refuse to invite your close friend.