A once-a-year opportunity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 17, 1999
Imagine a man rushing up and down the aisles of a supermarket grabbing jars of the most expensive coffee, cartons of the richest ice cream, and enough of the finest cuts of meat to feed an army. The store manager chases after him to facilitate his shopping spree in any way possible.
At the checkout counter, he is ushered to the express line, despite the overladen shopping carts, and a team of stockboys quickly packs his purchases. After toting up the huge bill, the cashier asks sweetly, 'And how would you like to pay - cash, check, or credit card?' To which the man replies, 'Sorry, I don't have any money.'
'What chutzpah!' the whole store would call out in unison.
True enough. Yet if we think about ourselves during the Ten Days of Repentance, we might well ask: Is our chutzpah any less?
Twice a day we recite Avinu Malkeinu. After a checklist of requests, we conclude, 'Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; treat us with charity and kindness and save us.'
We admit that we have no currency with which to pay, and nevertheless expect God to give us the secret code to His ATM. And He does - on one condition. That we begin: 'Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.' In Your very presence, we confess, we have defied Your will.
In whose presence? In the presence of the King of the universe, the source of all reality, by Whose will we and the entire world came into being and are sustained every moment.
'Our Father, our King,' we continue, 'we have no king besides You.' We seek to once again be Your servants. You are not an oppressive despot whose will is imposed upon us as something external to ourselves, but a beneficent monarch, Who has set before us the path of good.
Let the point of recognition be ever so small - no more than a needle's breadth - and God will open for us the gates of teshuva (repentance) as wide as the entrance to a palace. Even before He brought the world into being, say the Kabbalists, He created the power to become a new person through teshuva and thereby erase all past accounts.
But however large or small our recognition of the truth, it must pierce us through entirely, the clarity of our vision can permit no admixture of rationalization and self-justification. Only then will we be filled with onging to bridge the abyss we have created between ourselves and Our Father in Heaven, and with horror at the way that we have obscured, through our relations with our fellow men and God, the spark of the Divine within us.
No mere covering of our bets will suffice: 'God, if you exist, and if this really irks you, please forgive me.'
Without preparation and scorching self-examination, the requisite insight will not strike us as we reacquaint ourselves with the Yom Kippur machzor for the first time this year: 'Hmmm, this Al Het seems to have something to do with me. I'm sorry.'
Above all, our recognition must not remain purely intellectual. It must enter our hearts. Traversing the distance between the head and the heart requires concrete changes in behavior. Those changes might involve no more than minutes a day, so long as they are concrete and inviolable. Grandiose resolutions to never speak lashon hara or lose one's temper again are meaningless. They are but one more instance of 'confession of the lips,' leading only to assured failure and despair.
Only through small, incremental steps - a fixed hour every day where one does not speak about others, remembering to pause before entering the house to put aside the pressures of the day and greet one's family with a smile, ten more minutes a day delving into the Jewish bookshelf - do we gain the necessary confidence in our power to change and grow.
THE great Jewish maggid Rabbi Shalom Schwadron used to tell the story of a young man who emigrated from Eastern Europe to America at the turn of the century. After many years of separation, his elderly father was consumed with a desire to see his son again. He sold everything he owned to purchase a ship ticket to America.
The father endured the long journey in steerage sustained by his visions of a joyous reunion with his son. When at last his ship docked, however, there was no son at port to greet him. The old man tried to console himself that some unavoidable emergency must have detained his son, and he set out by train for his son's address.
At the train station, there was once again no one to meet him, and he hired a cab to take him to his son's house. There he expected to find a house festively lit in his honor, but the house was completely dark. The father knocked and knocked on the door until at last a light went on upstairs and a weary voice called out, 'Who is there?'
The father could not contain himself and he called out joyously, 'It is I, your father, who has come all the way from Europe to see you again.'
'Oh, it is you,' replied the son. 'I've already undressed for the night, and I cannot possibly come downstairs to greet you.'
During the ten days of repentance, our Father gets down off His celestial throne, as it were, and draws close to us. If we do not rush to greet Him, we have spurned Him and distanced ourselves twice as much as before.
May we all seize the opportunity G-d has provided us so that He can fulfill His promise: 'If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become white as wool.'
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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