The 12 Steps of Atonement Anonymous

The High Holidays are the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, and consist of the Days of Awe, a ten-day period of reflection and repentance that begins on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year and ends on Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,”. On Rosh Hashanah, we pray to be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur, we pray that what was written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed for a life of blessings, peace, and good livelihood, and that we grow through our rigorous reflection and dedication to self-improvement.

However, what is intended to be a period of introspection and transformation can be easily become corrupted for people in need of structure, where uninhibited introspection can lead to negative consequences on the practitioner's mental health. This kind of repentance can, in a way, be compared to recovery, in the way structure is needed to do it effectively and healthily. Thankfully, the popularized Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous connect beautifully with the holiday of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we focus on accountability, forgiveness, and reaching a new level of being, themes that are a major part of recovery. Each of the Twelve Steps has a mirror in the practices and beliefs that make up the Yom Kippur experience, and each of the steps and traditions can be used to help one grow into their best selves.

Judaism creates a foundation we can use as a springboard to take care of our mental well-being. We invite you to explore these steps, executing them in any order you think best matches your personal needs and aspirations for the holiday season.

1. We admitted our ultimate powerlessness over parts of our lives — that our lives had become unmanageable.
One of the first practices of Yom Kippur is called “Kaparot,” a practice used to put practitioners in the mindset of the season, reminding us what’s at stake as our lives “hang in the balance” as well as the power of repentance to turn our lives around. Linguistically, this prayer consists of nine biblical verses strung together, except for the opening two words, “Children of Man.” This phrase comes from the book of Ezekiel and is a callback to the creation of humankind, utilized to stress that the practitioner seeks atonement for their mistakes in order to once again fulfill our G-d-given purposes in life and return to the pristine state of being in the Garden of Eden.

Yom Kippur starts with us admitting our own flaws and humanity, not from a place of shame but from a place of recognition that we are human beings who can always improve.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Once we acknowledge our humanness, we look toward a higher power to restore us or renew us for the next year.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of G-d as we understand them.

Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to reflection and connection with a higher power, is one of the most widely celebrated holidays across Jewish denominations. There is a reason we participate, whether it's to connect to community, to be inscribed, or just to self-reflect and do better in the next year. But ultimately, we take a step forward by just showing up with a dedication to growth.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

In many Jewish communities, the month preceding the High Holy Days consists of “Selichot,” a collection of prayers and poems meant to elicit repentance in the coming weeks. Selichot includes the prayer of Vidui, literally “Confessions,” in which we acknowledge and list the mistakes we have made.

This kind of self-reflection and acceptance of our past is key to true repentance and transformation. Only by acknowledging our past can we do better in the coming year.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we engage in another tradition called, Tashlich.

Tashlich, meaning “you will cast,” represents repentance, acceptance, and forgiveness. We acknowledge any harm we have done, accept that we have harmed others, and forgive ourselves with a commitment to move forward and do better.

During this ritual, we consider our actions of the past year and use the symbology of water and bread crumbs to let go of the mistakes we have made.

6. We’re entirely ready to have G-d remove all these defects of character.

At the start of the ten Days of Awe, Jews recite the “Annulment of Vows” prayer. According to Biblical law, the promises and commitments we make have a binding quality to them, and on the eve of the new year, it is a custom to formally annul any vows that have not been completed. This practice of annulment happens in the presence of an informal assembly of three colleagues and represents the beginning of the process of reflection on who we were in the past year, from the mistakes we made to the promises we failed to keep. We perform these rituals with the belief we can do better next year. The goal is not to shame our past but to aspire to a brighter future, and admitting our goals to our fellow man sets us on a trajectory to do just that, proving we are ready to take those next steps.

After asking for pardon of the vows of the previous year, our colleagues validate our request and desire for change by saying:

Hearing your regret, we release you.

All is forgiven,

all is released,

and may it be that

in the same way that we here below

release you from these vows and obligations,

so may you be released from the court above from the same.

7. Humbly asked G-d to remove all these defects of character.

Throughout the entire holiday, we ask G-d to help us do better. We can look to the words of S’lach Lanu, a prayer we repeat throughout a holiday.

In this prayer we ask G-d to show us compassion — to redeem us, treat us kindly, and renew us for the next year.

“Forgive us our Sovereign for we have sinned, pardon us our Sovereign for we have willfully transgressed, for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who is gracious and ever willing to forgive.”

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

On Yom Kippur it is tradition to ask for forgiveness from those we know we have harmed or wronged. Some traditions even state we should apologize to all our friends, just in case we have unknowingly hurt them.

Transgressions between people are not subject to atonement on Yom Kippur unless the offender forgives the offended party. Even if one aggrieved another with words alone, this forgiveness is necessary. (Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Law))

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

It’s worth noting we aren’t commanded to forgive others but rather to seek forgiveness. The person who has been harmed is allowed to turn you down. Tradition says if we try our best, we are atoned even if they do not forgive our actions, because it’s about us being accountable, not pushing others.

If someone won’t give you forgiveness right away for a mistake you made, you shouldn’t ask for forgiveness more than three times. (Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Law))

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong we promptly admitted it.

Much like engaging with the Torah, we don't do the Twelve Steps only once. We walk through them and then begin again, constantly engaging with the material and finding new meaning. For the month before Yom Kippur, Elul, we are encouraged to do cheshbon hanefesh, or “the accounting of the soul,” as preparation for the holiday. Ceshbon hasnefesh is a mindfulness exercise where we take stock of all our actions over the last year and introspect.

We recognize that Yom Kippur happens every year. We are not asking to be permanently inscribed; we are asking for another year, knowing we will be back next year to engage with the same ritual to teach us to be accountable for our actions while also being compassionate toward ourselves.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the G-d of our understanding, praying only for knowledge of Their will for us and the power to carry that out.

The High Holidays serve this purpose exactly. We spend the day in prayer and meditation seeking to deepen our understanding of how we can live more compassionately next year. In fact, with the final shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah, the congregation declares:

“Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah” Repentance, Prayer, Righteousness,

As if to say doing these things will undo any punishments — and also improve our lives as a whole.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

It is meritorious to start building the sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur, even if it is Friday, because a chance to perform a precept should not be put off. One should choose a clean site. Everyone should build the sukkah, even if one is an eminent person (Condensed Code of Jewish Law, Chapter 134).

As soon as Yom Kipper is over, Jewish tradition advises us to begin preparations for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. On that holiday, Jews highlight the fact that a higher power runs the world by building temporary dwellings called Sukkot, where we eat and sleep — where we live — for seven days. That is to say, Jewish tradition teaches us that after a spiritual awakening and a life-changing experience, we shouldn’t delay in actualizing our new perspective, living our truth fully.

Booklet Section: Seeking Forgiveness