Yom Kippur, says the Talmud, is the most joyous of the Yomim Tovim because it is a day of Divine forgiveness. The day before we were cut off from God, unworthy in His sight, and today we are close and beloved once again.
The recitation of the Al Cheit nine times over 26 hours forces us to focus on all the ways that we have failed to live up to the ideal. Yet strangely the dwelling on our failings and weaknesses is also a cause of joy. We emerge from Yom Kippur confident that we can change ourselves dramatically, and filled with hope that perhaps next year we will finally be able to stand in front of God giving account of our lives without acute embarrassment.
The powerful drive to teshuva, return to God, inherent in the day, leaves one feeling capable not just of becoming a better person but of becoming a new person. The Kabbalists point out that the numerical value of the word Hasatan (variously the tempter or accuser) is 364. We are thrall to our physicality 364 days a year. On Yom Kippur, however, we rise above ourselves and become spiritual beings.
After Yom Kippur, we do not just revert to our previous state. Having being freed from the power of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) for one day, we recognize it as a fifth columnist within, not part of our essence. Recognition that our sins do not define us fills us with an intense desire to extirpate from our personalities all that led to our various sins - to literally recreate ourselves.
I can still remember my first Yom Kippur at Ohr Somayach nearly 20 years ago. After finishing the silent Shmoneh Esrai prayer, I looked up convinced that I must have just presented God with the longest bill of particulars He had ever received. To my astonishment, I saw the rosh yeshiva bent over reciting the Al Cheit for another 20 minutes.
I could not imagine then - and still cannot - what he could have had to repent for, but at least now I understand the mindset from which his tears flowed. A truly great Jew is distinguished by the scorching self-scrutiny to which he constantly subjects himself. He lives acutely conscious that every thought and action is directly before God.
For him, the familiar distinction between public and private morality does not exist, for nothing we do is ultimately private. Every single moment must be accounted for, because each moment is imbued with the potential to bring holiness into the world. When we use that potential properly, we too are spiritually elevated, and when we fail, we descend. Standing pat is not one of the options.
Thus the Vilna Gaon explained that we are judged twice for every sin - once for the sin itself and once for the time wasted that could have been spent doing a mitzva. He wept bitterly one Yom Kippur because he could not account for six minutes from the preceding year.
WHEN I was in Yale Law School, I never imagined myself spending the better part of a day each year enumerating my failings in excruciating detail. My classmates and I assumed as a matter of course that we were good people, and that academic success and moral superiority went hand in hand.
We gave scant thought to how we ourselves might become better. Our efforts were devoted to figuring out how we could use the law to force the cretins of the world - just about everybody else in our judgment – to do what is right. My classmates and I were more pernicious than most only in our cocky assumption of the right to impose our views on others. But in our lack of self-scrutiny and effort to make ourselves into better people, we were typical of our society.
Self-help books proliferate everywhere. Their focus, however, is rarely on how to become a better person. Most offer only the secret elixir that will allow one to garner more of life's goodies. Peace of mind, we are assured, is primarily a process of learning to accept oneself for who one is.
The lazy tolerance of 'I'm OK; you're OK" has replaced the traditional view that a well-lived life is one shaped by some ideal of right behavior. Today, there is no more expectation that a person will conquer a bad temper than that he will change his hair color. 'That's the way I am. Take it or leave it,' would be the likely response to such an expectation.
Nowhere has this 'feel good" philosophy run riot more than in the educational system. For 20 years, American schools have been obsessed with self-esteem divorced from concrete achievement. The result: Asked to assess their math prowess, American students are the most likely in the world to rate themselves proficient, while, in fact, they rank near the bottom of the industrial world.
No concept so separates the Torah world from the outside society as that of 'working on oneself." For the Torah Jew, the words denote strenuous effort to improve one's character, a task that we are told can be harder than learning all of Talmud. In the outside world, the same words are more likely to conjure up the pursuit of firmer abdominal muscles.
This Yom Kippur may we all experience the joy of 'working on ourselves" to become better people in the Divine image.