We all face moments in our lives over which we repent. Sometimes these concern matters that directly affect our fellow human beings, animals, or nature, and sometimes they concern our behavior towards G-d.
Does it make sense to repent if the consequences cannot be reversed? Should we repent if we have unknowingly hurt someone? What is the right way to repent?
Questions can be asked if we want to think about this topic.
Adam and Cain
Adam erred when he ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The punishment that followed was that he and his descendants would, eventually, die. Since the consequences persisted, Adam thought there was no point in repenting for his act. It was only after he saw the result of repentance by his son Cain that he understood its importance.
Cain left happily. . . . He came across his father, Adam, who asked him, “So, how did your judgment go?”
Cain answered, “I repented, and we reached a compromise.” Adam began slapping himself on his face. He exclaimed, “This is the power of repentance, and I had no clue!” Then he stood up and he sang, “A song for the day of Shabbat! It is good to admit to G‑d!”
‘Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat’ — ‘A Psalm, a song for the Shabbat day’ — ‘Tov lehodot laHashem’ — ‘It is a good thing to make a confession [lit. give thanks] to Hashem’ ” (Psalms 92:1). (Some commentaries say that he only said the words ‘Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat’ and the word haShabbat (השבת) can be rearranged to spell the word teshuvah (תשבה). Thus, he was proclaiming a song for the day when one realizes and repents. And Adam repent and spent 130 years immersing himself in the waters of the river גיחון to atone for his sin.
Reuben had made a mistake by placing his mother Leah’s bed in Jacob’s tent. Had he done so with good intentions to honor his mother? Which could even be seen as a great mitzvah. (Exodus 20:12). But he realized that his actions did not please his father.  Following that, he repented. For this reason, he returned to the well into which Joseph had been cast.
וַיָּ֤שׇׁב רְאוּבֵן֙ אֶל־הַבּ֔וֹר וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵין־יוֹסֵ֖ף בַּבּ֑וֹר וַיִּקְרַ֖ע אֶת־בְּגָדָֽיו׃
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes.
Where was he? Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua [disagree]. Rabbi Eliezer said from his sackcloth and fast, when he finished, he returned and looked into the pit, as it is written “And Reuven returned to the pit”. The Holy One of Blessing said: “There has never been a time ever when a person who sinned before me did teshuva. You were the first one to do teshuva, and [as a reward] I swear that your grandson will stand and open the way to teshuva. Who is this? Hoshea, as it says: “Return Israel unto Hashem, your G-d”.
Adam and Cain only repented after G-d told them that they had gravely sinned and enumerated the numerous negative consequences of the sin.. Thus there were two factors that negated the power of the repentance of Adam and Cain; firstly it did not come from their own recognition of their sin, rather God had to inform them of this; secondly, their repentance was motivated by fear of the punishments that they would receive for their sin, and far less due to a genuine regret that they had contradicted G-d’s will.
This contrasts with Reuben who repented because he knew he had acted wrongly towards his father and therefore also towards G-d.
From this, we can already learn important lessons.
We should and can repent even if we cannot lift the consequences. Of course, if we can undo the consequences of our actions, we should do so.
We should not only repent because we fear being punished by G-d or by society but because we realize that we have done wrong.
Even if we did not act wrong from our perspective, if we see that we have caused suffering to another, we should also repent.
Step One: Say it out loud.
Step Two: Fix up what you did
Step Three: Charity
Step Four: Move up in life
People who come from a different religious system sometimes struggle with the idea of giving Charity. People say: it’s like buying off your sins with it. That is not the case. G-d does not allow himself to be paid. But it is part of righting what has been made crooked. A mess-up diminishes life; charity means to give life. Charity heals the world, and your soul as well.
The last step is also important. If you have repented, after that it is also finished. You must move on with your life. Continuing to look back will numb you to move forward.
It will not make you happy, and we should serve G-d with joy. Repentance is a process. If you have done the above steps it does not automatically mean that you cannot make a mistake again. But each time you grow and next time it will be easier and better. See each day as a new beginning, the day you will get it all right.
To see what prayers are appropriate for repentance by individuals See the Article on AskNoah.
I would also like to point to the wonderful article written on the “Meanings of repentance, forgiveness & atonement for Gentiles” by AskNoah.
After our Repentance
Once a person has fulfilled the halachic requirements of repentance, he should have faith that G-d has accepted it and forgiven him, and then he should continue with his obligation to serve G-d in happiness – especially with his happiness in his faith that he has been forgiven. And we should never get so caught up in our own personal problems that we ignore the cry of a child (another person) in need of help.
These are two additional important lessons we can learn from Reuben’s repentance. Reuben is criticized for the way he was involved in his repentance. He was in the process of repentance for 8 years. Despite Reuben knowing that his half-brother Joseph had been thrown into a pit and his life was in danger, Reuben chose to make his 8-year-old daily routine of repentance his first priority.
By Angelique Sijbolts
 He moved his father’s bed when Rachel died, and Joseph was 9 years old at the time. Joseph was sold at the age of 17. This means that Reuben was still up in his sackcloth and fasting, repenting of his wrongdoing, 8 years after it happened.
With thanks to Dr. Michael Shulman for this addition