Too often, even when we are seized by the moment to repent, we refrain from doing so from some high-minded idea that it is hypocritical to do teshuva when we are still steeped in sin
Hag Same’ah! Yes, Yom Kippur is a holiday and a happy one at that! Our Sages tell us: “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the 15th day of Av and Yom Kippur.” More than the baby wants to suckle, the mother wants to nurse. More than we want a relationship with God, God wants one with us. If we make the first move, we will find God already moving toward us. And that is a happy day!
One of the most difficult stumbling blocks to teshuva, repentance, is the belief that it really works. But you are a fool to doubt its efficacy. How are we to accept the rabbinic laws when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of Judaism but refuse to believe the power of teshuva to wipe away all sins? Either the sins are not sins and there is nothing to repent for, or the sins are real and teshuva works.
The problem is that teshuva is counterintuitive. How is it possible to do something that can affect the distant past? We all know how easy it is to affect the future; but the past? Judaism says it is in fact possible to change the past. In other words, your future is in fact your past, and it is your past that will then define you!
This is why teshuva is named by the Sages as one of the few things created before the world was created. That means that teshuva is not from this world and is not bound by physics.
How does one do teshuva? We are to regret our sins. We are to confess them to God Himself (we Jews do not believe in any intermediaries between man and God), and finally take upon ourselves not to commit the sins again.
If you do this, our tradition teaches us, the sin is then forgiven. It is as if it did not happen.
The Hebrew word teshuva literally means “return.” God wants us to return not just to Him but to ourselves. Like any parent, God wants us to self-actualize. A return to who we were before we sinned. A return to the person we ought to be.
Too often, though, even when we are seized by the moment to repent, we refrain from doing so from some high-minded idea that it is hypocritical to do teshuva when we are still steeped in sin. We feel as if God doesn’t want to hear from us, because we are so impure.
I am going to share with you a secret my rebbe shared with me, and it is a rule of life that has put me in good stead for 25 years now. Don’t let what you did on Saturday night prevent you from going to minyan Sunday morning.
God knows you, even better than you know yourself. Before you were even conceived, He knew you! He knows the world you live in and its temptations. He knows that we are now living in the digital age, where sin crouches at the door and the homepage.
Think about it! Three thousand three hundred and thirty years after Sinai, the fact that you are bearing with me and still reading this column is an amazing testament to the fidelity you have to God, His Torah, and His people. It is amazing that 3,330 years after being told to afflict ourselves on the 10th day of Tishrei, more than three-quarters of Jewish Israelis fast.
Our presence in synagogue next week is a statement to the world that while we are a part of it, we are also apart from it. We return home. When you get dressed and go to services, you are doing teshuva. It is a return to God and to your real self, your Jewish self.
Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion. This means that even if we are still struggling with some of the mitzvot, it shouldn’t prevent us from doing the others. NOW, I know that some of you are sitting smugly while reading this, secure in your own mitzvah observance. You feel that since you keep Shabbat and kashrut and give tzedaka, you have nothing to worry about.
I want to tell you that you should indeed worry, because you are missing something fundamental, the idea of Am Yisrael, Jewish peoplehood. We are a people first and foremost, and therefore we Jews function as a complete unit. What you fail to understand is that if your fellow Jews do not keep the Sabbath, then you are not keeping the Sabbath. If your fellow Jew does not keep kashrut, then it is you who do not keep kashrut. The question that should plague your soul and keep sleep from your eyes is what are you going to do about the 70% of American Jews who are intermarrying?
The story is told of a king who was very wise. So wise, he was said to be able to answer every single question posed to him. Once, a shepherd boy thought he would outsmart the king and brought a butterfly cupped in his hand to the king. He asked the king if the butterfly was alive or dead. The king looked at the boy and realized what was going on. If the king would reply that the butterfly was alive, the boy would simply crush the butterfly, open his hand and prove the king wrong. And if the king would reply that the butterfly was dead, the boy would simply open his hand and release the butterfly, only to prove the king a fool.
The king thought for a moment and told the boy that the answer was in his hands.
We stand on Yom Kippur and ask God, “Who will live and who will die?” And God tells us, the answer is in our hands! ■
TZEDAKAH BOX, Charleston, 1820, National Museum of American Jewish History: ‘I know some of you are sitting smugly... secure in your own mitzvah observance. You feel that since you keep Shabbat and kashrut and give tzedaka, you have nothing to worry about.’