Teshuva: A Discussion Guide

  • 1-2 60 minute sessions
  • Grades: 3 - 12
  • Lesson Plan
  • by: Moshe Goodman

This discussion guide explores the Jewish approach to repentance, drawing on Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah. Included are hands-on activities for younger and older students that deal with guilt and apology.

Introduction

This is a general discussion guide about Teshuvah including “apology scenarios.”

Lesson objectives

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.

Procedure

1.The Rambam explains that Teshuvah is a three step process:

  • Admitting that you did something wrong.
  • Telling God that you really regret what you did (and meaning it of course.)
  • Telling God that you are going to try your best not to do it again. (See Hilchot Teshuvah of the Rambam – Hebrew and English)

2. 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. 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. Next, it’s a good idea to explain to students that after we do teshuvah our sins become mitzvoth 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. (They will either feel like this makes no sense or they’ll be really excited and excuse themselves to go find the nearest piece of pork.) 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. 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. 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 him/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:

  • It’s embarrassing to admit that you were wrong.
  • Sometimes you know you were wrong about something, but a part of you still FEELS like you weren’t so wrong.
  • Maybe you’re still mad at the person you need to apologize to. That makes you not want to admit that you’re wrong, because “she’s wrong too!”
  • Sometimes admitting that you’re wrong makes you realize how wrong you were. That could make you feel really guilty and that’s not a fun feeling. If the students have a hard time producing their own explanations for why apologizing is difficult run some of these ideas by them and see if they can give examples of times that they felt that way. Also, this is another good place to have the students make skits.

6. 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 to 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 use mussar chavrutas or bein adam lechaveiro buddies. 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.

7. Now that we know we need to apologize sometimes we need to talk about 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 (On the phone Vs. in person Vs. in an e-mail or IM, Day time Vs. night time, In school Vs. in your house Vs. in his house etc…)

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.

8. Activity (older students): 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?

Apology Scenarios:

  • You were invited to a big graduation party, but your best friend wasn’t. She asked you to hang out with her that night and you told her that you couldn’t because your parents punished you and you weren’t allowed to go out. She found out that you were lying about that and she’s very upset.
  • You were playing in a very intense basketball game. In the closing seconds a player from the opposing team went up for a lay-up and you jumped up to block it. Unfortunately you fouled him and he fell and broke his leg. He’ll be in a cast for a few weeks and won’t be able to play basketball for the rest of the year.
  • Your friend confronts you and says that she’s very mad at you because she knows that you’ve been saying terrible things about her behind her back.
  • You went with a bunch of friends to Great Adventure. In the middle of the trip everyone decided to ditch Dan while he was in the bathroom. They said you could come with them or be the only one waiting for Dan when he came out of the bathroom. You went with them.
  • During class you accidentally tripped your friend as he was walking through the aisle.
  • Your best friend told you a huge secret. She made you promise not to tell anyone about it. About 10 minutes later you forgot about the promise and told someone else in your class all about it. In each case if the first or second apologies don’t work let the “apologizer” think of a better way to apologize. (Maybe you can even make sure that a few first apologies “don’t work” so the students can get the idea of finding alternative ways of apologizing.)

9. Activity (younger students): Feel free to make up or have the students make up their own examples in addition to these.

You made fun of _____________’s shirt. You said “your shirt is so ugly!”

You kicked _____________ in the foot because he beat you in a basketball game and you got very mad.

When _____________ answered a question in class you laughed and said that was a stupid answer.

When everyone got last night’s homework you kept saying “this is so easy!” _____________ didn’t think it was so easy and you really hurt his feelings. Now he’s crying and he said he hates you and doesn’t want to be your friend anymore.

You stuck your foot out and tripped _____________ while he was walking to his seat. The whole class laughed at him and he was very embarrassed.

You told your teacher that _____________ was talking during class and he lost his recess.

At recess you told _____________ that he can’t play basketball with you and your friends. He spent all of recess alone on the bench. He might have been crying too.

When _____________ was trying to speak in class you kept interrupting him and he got very annoyed at you and said you can’t come to his birthday party.

You told _____________ that he can’t come to your birthday party because you thought that he threw a spitball at you during class. The party was last night and you just found out that he wasn’t the one who threw the spitball at you.

_____________ was being really annoying. He kept following you around all day. When you got so mad that you couldn’t take it anymore, you punched him in the face.

You took _____________’s pen off his desk without permission. When he came into the classroom the teacher started a test and she said that whoever doesn’t have a pen will get a 0 on the test automatically. Since you took _____________’s pen he got a 0.

10. 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. · An apology should show that if there is some way that you could fix what you did you would like to. · An apology should show that you are serious about not making the same mistake again. · An apology should show how sad you are that your friend is upset with you. · An apology should show that you understand why it is hard for your friend to forgive you.

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 be 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 make you feel the most guilty?

(Sensitivity)

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.

(Honesty/stealing)

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.

(Loyalty)

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.

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