How Can We Appeal to G-d for Forgiveness?
People Need to Speak Directly to G-d
So many people feel intimidated and unwilling to talk to G-d directly, but G-d is there for all of us always. G-d is available to everyone, we don't need to go to intermediaries. Since G-d is always there, we can always turn to Him/Her.
Forgiveness is G-d's Job
A while ago, I was in a Jewish singles' chat room. As is my usual practice, I started off with my "is anyone here Orthodox?" Generally, I don't get much response (most of the Orthodox people probably find the discussions a bit too raunchy, as I often do).
This time I got a very interesting, if disturbing, response. One young man told me that G-d didn't love him. When I asked him why, he hemmed and hawed until he finally said that he had done some things in the past that he didn't think put him in good stead with G-d. I tried pressing him, but he wouldn't tell me. I told him that there was very little that G-d wouldn't forgive him for unless he ruined a lot of lives with his actions and he assured me that the only person whose life he had "ruined" was his mother's. I then maintained that we all "ruin" our mothers' lives from time to time.
This entire exchange bothered me. So, I mentioned it to a friend who used to be a professor in the West (in a small town practically devoid of Jews). She told me that she had encountered something very similar from one of her students. Her students know that she is Orthodox and one (in his early 20s) said that he was born Jewish but "knew" he couldn't be Jewish anymore since he hadn't been inside a synagogue for, lo, these many years.
My friend and I talked about this at length (it was at that point that I decided to write this article). I wondered what sort of G-d people think is up there in heaven.
My friend suggested this might be a result of Christian influence. Right or wrong, we generally have the idea that Christianity is a faith-based religion. If you don't believe, no matter how good a person you are, you will "burn in hell" (and those Christian evangelists just love to throw that phrase around). But this is NOT a Jewish idea. (By the way, neither is hell.)
Stories of Teshuva (Repentance)
I remember back in High School. We used to have a certain genre of story that we would learn in Hebrew class right around the High Holy days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). (For information on these holidays and other Jewish laws, customs and concepts, check out compugraphd's Rosh Hashana article, compugraphd's Tishrei -- month of the holy days -- article, and Jewish FAQs which explains these concepts from a very elementary level, assuming no previous knowledge). In these stories, the protagonist would come from being a pretty evil person to doing "teshuva" (repentance) and reconnecting with Hashem (G-d) during Yom Kippur. To illustrate, I'll tell you one of the stories I remember.
In Judaism, it is important for men to pray with a minyan, a quorum of 10 men over the age of 13. This story opens in a small town on Yom Kippur. They only had 9 men for minyan and couldn't say many of the important Yom Kippur prayers without a minyan. The Rabbi tried to figure out where they could find a 10th man.
One of the congregants said he recalled a certain businessman in town, a miser, it seemed, and not a nice man, who he was pretty certain was Jewish. With no other choice, the Rabbi went hurriedly to the house of this businessman, "Rev Avraham" by name. Rev Avraham assured the Rabbi that he couldn't help; he had drifted very far from Judaism and was certain G-d would no longer accept him. But the Rabbi persisted and Rev Avraham came to the synagogue to complete the minyan.
To make a long story short, over the course of the day of Yom Kippur, Rev Avraham becomes more and more contrite over his past deeds and uses the Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to find his way back to G-d. At the point of the ending of Yom Kippur, he reaches such a pitch of contrition and atonement that "his soul leaves his body and ascends to heaven".
So what is the point of this story? The point is that in Judaism, we believe that G-d forgives those who are truly sorry. Repentance in Judaism consists of Admission of the transgression, Contrition, Asking G-d for forgiveness, Resolving never to do this again (mind you, if you slip again in the future, you go through the same process again. It is neither harder nor easier to be forgiven the second time around). If you truly intend to not transgress again, G-d accepts your atonement. There is no blood sacrifice needed, no acceptance of an external intermediary, only contrition and acceptance to not transgress again.
The Bottom Line
I must also add at this point that the Jewish belief is "once a Jew, always a Jew". Even if you "convert out", you can still return to Judaism without formal conversion. This is true for people who have left Judaism on their own as well as it is for people who may not even know they are Jewish (or who find out later in life). Baptism is of no importance to Jews; to us, baptism does not make a Jew a Gentile. Obviously, any Jew who has not even formally left Judaism, but has just fallen away from Jewish observance, is still a Jew in our eyes. Rabbi Kuk, who lived in Israel around the turn of the 19th-20th Centuries, the founder of Religious Zionism, used to say, "there are two kinds of Jews, those who are observant and those who are net yet observant." This expresses the Jewish perspective on religious observance quite succinctly.
So, the young man in the chat room and my friend's student were both operating under a misconception. G-d is always there for you. The path to G-d is always there, it is just harder for some people to find. But, no matter how long or short that road is for you, if you want to traverse it, you can. Don't blame G-d for giving up on you when in reality, you might have given up on G-d. Don't be embarrassed. G-d listens to you from your private room, too. You don't need a Rabbi or a teacher to get you through to G-d. We all have G-d's "phone number".
The interesting thing about Jewish observance, from my perspective, is that if you are a good person, you are already keeping a lot of what makes a person observant in Judaism. Judaism recognizes two distinct areas of observance -- Bein Adam LaMakom (laws between people and G-d) and Bein Adam L'Haveiro (laws between people and other people). The former includes things like Keeping Kosher (following the dietary laws, for example, not eating pork, not eating dairy and meat together) and Keeping Shabbat -- the Sabbath (which means, basically, using the seventh day of the week -- from sundown Friday night until a bit after sundown on Saturday night -- as a day to "recharge your physical batteries" by spending the day "unplugged", so to speak, from your word-a-day life. These laws benefit people by giving them an opportunity to tune in to other areas of existence than work and other weekday pursuits. The latter group of mitzvot (laws) include things like helping those in need, giving tzedaka (charity, but unlike the English word, tzedaka comes from the Hebrew word meaning "justice". It is just for one to share with other, and money isn't the only thing you can share to help someone. According to Maimonides, a 12th-13th Century Rabbi, Philosopher and Teacher [the books he wrote on Jewish law are studied by millions still today]), the highest form of tzedaka is to help someone help him/herself.
As you can see, G-d set up the Tora and It's laws to help people, to give us a guide for living in the world. The Tora is basically a "User manual for the world written by the world's creator". Just as when you make a mistake using computer software you consult your user manual, so too when you take a misstep in life you consult the user manual, the Tora. What better advice for life could there be?