The hope of Yom Kippur
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 13, 2002
The other day an idealistic young woman came to visit me. She is determined to lessen secular-religious tensions in Israel, and has even managed to secure an academic grant to support her research in this area. She had previously interviewed me about ``the problem," and was back this time to discuss ``the solutions."
We had no trouble filling up two hours in the first interview, and I naively assumed the same would be true this time. Until she asked the first question that is: ``So what do you see as the solution to the religious-secular divide?" Uncharacteristically, I was left speechless for a number of minutes.
After my interlocutor left, however, it occurred to me that the High Holy Days have much to teach us on this subject. The Rosh Hashanah prayers describe each of us as passing before God as ``bnei maron ." The Talmud gives many interpretations of this enigmatic phrase, but all share one idea in common: We are being judged individually, removed from all social context, just as we will be judged on the day of death. (That does not mean, of course, that how we relate to others and to the collective Jewish people will not constitute an important part of our judgment.)
Pointing at others and telling God that we are doing much better than they are will not avail us in our individual judgment. Such invidious comparisons only demonstrate that we have not properly understood our task during the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
If the subgroups in Israeli society followed this rule the angry accusatory tone that characterizes national life would automatically diminish. There is no group that is not plagued with internal problems aplenty. It is inevitably easier to point out others manifest shortcomings than to work on our own. The result, however, is too much time spent staring through our neighbors’ windows and too little spent looking in the mirror. If we all focused on repairing our own houses, we would quickly see a better and less tense society.
Nor is that the only important lesson that we could all garner from the High Holy Days. The question posed on Rosh Hashanah is: Who do you want to be? We begin the process of teshuvah (repentance) with our gaze firmly on the future, not by asking what we did wrong in the preceding year. That is why Rosh Hashanah comes on the first day of the new year, not on the last day of the preceding year.
Some have found this future orientation strange: Would it not make more sense to first figure out all the ways in which we have failed in the preceding year? The answer is that we must first develop a set of goals for our lives. Without such standards, it is impossible to judge even past actions. On Yom Kippur, we wash our dirty clothes. But before we can throw our clothes into the washing machine, we have to first take them off. That requires recognition that our clothes do not befit us and need cleaning.
``Happy is the nation that knows the secret of the shofar blasts." The shofar heralds the Divine judgment. Indeed by blowing the shofar, we invite our own judgment, and thereby acknowledge that the judgment of the day is more for our benefit than it is for G-d’s. He can judge us each and every moment. It is we who need one day a year when our attention is riveted on the quest for our essential selves, for a clear self-definition. By summoning G-d, as it were, to sit in judgment, we show Him that we recognize the need for change, for re-creation of ourselves.
Israel could certainly benefit from a greater future orientation. As individuals and as a society, we have been forced to spend so much energy just surviving the next 24 hours, that we often appear to have given up on the future altogether. Our columnists rehash each event with the same minute attention the ancients once gave to reading entrails. Missing is any longer view or attempt to put the details of our lives in a larger context.
Our governments meanwhile lurch from crisis to crisis. The most pressing problems are put off for years, and then after a decade or more of benign neglect, we suddenly find ourselves forced into hasty decisions that frequently do more harm than good. The water crisis has been brewing for years. Yet even now, when the Kinneret and our principal aquifers are all way below the danger line, we still have no comprehensive plan for addressing the issue.
For years, our per capita spending on education has been near the top of the industrial world and our return near the bottom. And still no one seems to know why or to have figured out that spending more money is not a cure-all for every problem. It has long been a cliché that road accidents have claimed more lives than all our wars. But we still have not made the relatively small investment in automated speed monitors that would not only save many lives but also return economic dividends far greater than the cost of the monitors.
THE good news for us, individually and collectively, is that change, even very dramatic change, is possible. That is the message of Yom Kippur.
The power of repentance, say our Sages, was created prior to the world, for without it the world could not have existed. Teshuva cannot be understood within the normal framework of time and space, for through teshuva the past can literally be rewritten: When one returns out of a desire to draw close to G-d, his former sins are counted as mitzvot. The true ba’al teshuvah becomes not just a better person, but a new person.
Such self-transformation does not happen overnight. We will all experience the uncomfortable sensation on Yom Kippur of confessing to the same sins that we resolved not to repeat last year. But even one crystal clear perception of past failure -- untainted by rationalizations and self-justification -- can become the launching pad for a full-scale transformation of oneself.
The key is the recognition of the absolutely necessity of change. Maimonides describes the average person, whose judgment is suspended between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as one whose merits and demerits are evenly balanced. Yet it is not enough for him to just do one more mitzvah during that period to secure a favorable judgment. For by making that calculation, he would show that he is perfectly content to remain the same person that he is. Rather he must demonstrate a desire to attain a higher spiritual level through teshuva.
Since Seder night in Netanya, Israelis have seen that change is possible. On a national level, there is greater clarity of vision and resolve. Our task now is to take the newfound clarity in one area and transfer it to every area of our private and public lives.
Related Topics: Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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