From the very beginning of time, many people have felt that they could set their own standards of morality and ethics. They try to live by their own standards of good and evil, without any connection to Divine revelation or involvement. Of course, this is unsuccessful policy for living ones life. But it is not new; it is the result of generations of philosophers who have unsuccessfully grappled with the human condition. But if philosophy has proven anything in the past 2500 years, it is this: that unless there is a revelation by some higher power, no objective standard of good and evil could exist.
It is impossible for a person to live by his own moral standards. For when he fails to live up to them - and some degree of failure is inevitable - he is left with no recourse. Since he has no authority other than himself, no authority can forgive his guilt. This is one reason why guilt has become such a large part of the contemporary human experience.
However, Judaism recognizes G-d as the supreme authority and author of all morality. He Himself has defined good and evil for all time. Therefore, only G-d has the power to forgive sin and erase any evil that a person might commit. For since He has defined the nature of evil, He can also forgive evil.
Judaism defines sin as a spiritual sickness, and more precisely - as temporary insanity. Indeed, if a person did not loose track momentarily of the priorities of life; if he did not suddenly and inadvertently suffer a momentary disconnection from the Divine purpose of life, and a short snap of his bind with the Eternal Creator... then he would never sin! Thus the rabbis teach, a person does not sin unless he is temporarily seized by an insane impulse.
Pure logic dictates that this is true... for if we considers what happens when a human being sins, we may wonder: How is it possible for a person to transgress the will of the Al-mighty!? After all, when one sins, it is as if the entire universe is going in one direction, fulfilling the will of the Creator and thus sanctifying Him, but this one person... is going in the opposite direction! And whats more... he takes the very life energy that G-d gives him, the very force which enables the blood to stream through his body and the air to flow, the very strength which allows him to use his limbs... and with that G-d-given power, he uses it against G-d, by directing his energy into an area which G-d does not desire! Can there be a greater brazen audacity than this? It is as if he is handed a cup of wine by a benevolent benefactor, and in sheer ingratitude, he throws in the latters face!
But if sin can be defined as spiritual sickness, then G-d has provided repentance as the cure... and if sin is impurity, then G-d has provided the means for purification. Therefore, one of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is that when any person repents, his sins are forgiven. Thus the Torah states:
If you return to G-d your L-rd and listen to His voice... G-d will then accept your repentance and have compassion on you (Deut. 30:2-3)
The doors of repentance are open to every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike. Repentance is effective for every sin - no matter how serious. The rabbis teach, Nothing can stand before repentance. It helps no matter how often a sin was repeated... provided that it is no longer repeated from this time forth, as we shall discuss. It is equally effective to rectify an entire lifestyle, as it is to rectify individual sins. This means that the power of repentance is so great, that even if a person has lived an absolutely evil life, even having denied G-d, he can still be forgiven. This is the meaning of the verse, The evil of the wicked man shall not trip him up on the day he turns away from his wicked way (Ezekiel 33:12).
Why is repentance so powerful? Because G-d created the universe for the ultimate good of mankind. The only reason that evil and sin exist in the first place, is to allow man the opportunity to have free will and choice. And since G-d created man with free will, it is all but inevitable that he will sin, as the verse states, There is no man who does not sin (I Kings 8:46). But evil itself is not a primary part of G-ds purpose... it is not a permanent thing. G-d allowed the existence of evil, but only as it serves His plan for allowing man to improve himself by choosing good... evil is like a stain on the fabric of creation, and it is erased by repentance. In this light the sages teach that the concept of repentance was included in G-ds original plan for creation.
Since as we mentioned above, it is inevitable that every man sins to some degree - even someone who is considered righteous, if there were no means of erasing sin, man would be completely overwhelmed with guilt. His guilt would accumulate until he would cry out in anguish as Cain: My sin is too great to bear! (Gen. 4:13) For this reason G-d gave man the greatest of all possible gifts... repentance.
The concept of repentance shows us the great power of the Holy Ones love and mercy. For let us consider: after all, mans purpose in existence is only to obey the will of G-d. Therefore, when he sins, by right, justice should decree that man be destroyed... like anything else that goes against the very purpose of its being. But G-ds love and mercy override His justice... and He is always ready to forgive man. This is what King David meant when he wrote, G-d is good and upright, He shows sinners the way (Psalms 25:8). G-d made it clear through His prophet Ezekiel that this is His purpose:
As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he turn from his way and live
Even though G-d is all-powerful and could retaliate immediately against those who sin against Him, He prefers to bide His time, giving man a chance to repent before punishing him. Thus we find the verse in Isaiah, For My names sake, I will be patient; and for My praise, I will restrain (My anger) from you, that I not cut you off (Is. 48:9). This is the reason why the doors of repentance always remain open... since it forms such a basic part of G-ds plan. Even in a situation wherein the attribute of strict justice would shut closed the doors of repentance in a sinners face, G-d is ready to admit him. As we have mentioned, even if a person is wicked for all his life, G-d still gives him the opportunity to repent.
However, there is a condition for real and lasting, successful repentance... the one who wants to repent must make the first move. It is not up to G-d to seek him out; man must make the first move to seek out G-d. Commenting on this, the rabbis teach, When one comes to cleanse himself, then G-d helps him.
So how does one begin the process of repenting? What does it consist of? Just saying, "Sorry"?
We are taught that repentance consists of four elements:
1). Changing ones ways
2). Sincere regret
3). Confession to G-d
4). Resolve not to repeat the sin
Each of these four stages can clearly be seen in the prophets warning:
Return, Israel, to G-d your L-rd (1), for you have regretted your sin (2), take along words (3), and return to G-d. Say to Him, ...we will no longer make gods out of the work of our hands (4) (Hosea 14:2,4).
When a person commits a sin, spiritual damage is done to his faculties - his thoughts, speech, and actions (the three main avenues of human endeavor). Of the four distinct stages listed above, the last three are necessary to undo this spiritual damage. For regret involves ones thoughts, confession (take along words - the words of admitting the sin) is for speech, and resolve is to rectify the action itself.
However the first prerequisite for repentance is to change ones ways and abandon the practice of sin. If one tries to repent while still maintaining an involvement in the sin, he is compared to a person who tries to clean himself while still holding on to something filthy; what can he accomplish? So the first, and most important step to repentance, is to change ones life. Thus the prophets state, Let the wicked man forsake his way (Isaiah 55:7) and Cast away all your transgressions (Ezekiel 18:31). In order to truly engage in repentance, the sin must be cast away and discarded forever. And in doing this - ones motivation should be the fear of G-d, and the shame of having sinned before him.