09/27/2009 03:25 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Turning," or, You Don't Have to Be Jewish (or a President) to Atone on Yom Kippur

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

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews around the world repent for the past year's sins, wiping the slate clean for another year. But you don't have to be Jewish to ask for forgiveness. This Day of Atonement would be a fitting time for non-Jews as well to show some true repentance, more than the standard "I'm sorry," often forced, and mumbled insincerely.

Jews in almost all of the 800 or so Reform congregations in the States -- almost a million people -- happen to worship using the book my late husband Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote and edited, Gates of Repentance.

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." (Read more about this in the NYT article here.)

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 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. So I suggest they follow President Clinton's lead, and atone in this season of change:

--Joe Wilson can write President Obama a sincere note of apology and read it before the House of Representatives

-- Kanye West can rap about his boorishness, and the proceeds would provide an annual musical scholarship in Taylor Swift's name.

-- Ann Coulter can give the profits from all of her books to homeless shelters, and admit her arrogance on MSNBC.

Well, we can dream.

I know you can think of other notable transgressors this year, and suggest how they can resist repeating their offenses, by making amends and turning their behavior on this Day of Atonement.