The tendency to wallow in guilt as we enter Yom Kippur is counter-productive. The other extreme of sugar-coating our sins, hoping that re-labeling of them as “shortcomings”, “mistakes” and “errors” will spare us the discomfort of not always feeling great about ourselves, is equally counter-productive. We approach one of life’s greatest opportunities (and even if it occurs yearly, how many of them will each of us, with a mature awareness, ever experience? Fifty, sixty, even seventy days out of a lifetime is still pretty small change!) and turn our backs on it, seeking the familiar and/or comforting.
Yom Kippur presents the exciting opportunity to totally immerse ourselves in the known, our past acts and decisions, and to emerge into the unknown, the “brave new world” (literally, not as in the ironic book title) of a limitless future. If we process our past deeds, we no longer need be held captive to those subconscious forces we cannot understand. Instead, we can learn from them, release them and move forward, hopefully with new clues, new directions and new dedication.
None of us can control external forces, but we will have to, as the new year unfolds, engage with them. We have the choice, but only if we’ve honestly confronted and worked with them, to avoid our past mistakes (knowing, of course, that we’ll have a slew of new ones as the year goes by). If we understand the damage we’ve done, intentionally and inadvertently, to ourselves, to others and to the universe at large, we have a chance, at least, of not repeating it (which, it seems to me, is what the Rambam’s last stage of Tshuva describes, confronting the same situation and not falling into the same error).
Although I believe it’s become greatly inflated with sections and passages which might have been effective in various historical situations which are irrelevant now, the core of our traditional liturgy, the Machzor, does contain many effective thoughts and meditations, as well as other “technology” beyond most of our understanding (devised primarily by our great spiritual leaders and sages of Talmudic and Gaonic times) which directs our attempts to repair the past year’s damage to ourselves, others and the world. (For a sharp, often blunt, critique of the present state of traditional (orthodox) High Holiday prayers, listen to this lecture by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim (with apologies to those good friends who continue to travel to Uman each year)). But the real work often occurs only when we close our books and close our eyes and look inward.
Perhaps, however, the most potent, and often unseen obstacle, is the illusion that going through the motions, “reading each and every word”, beating our breasts with every Al Chayt….. (the formulaic litany of sins we recite multiple times throughout the service), thinking about our hunger which, this day, seems endless, will see us through. We can even program our emotions to experience what we think, have read or, even worse, have been taught, is expected and emerge at the final Shofar blast feeling renewed and rededicated, but if we haven’t actually examined our past actions, confronted the pain, the horror and the damage they’ve caused ourselves and others, we’ve merely played the role of an actor with a script.
The cliché of physical training, “no pain no gain” is infinitely truer here. We can always return to the gym tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, but this day of Yom Kippur presents a rare and precious opportunity to truly explore the bottom of our own personalities. What we find most likely won’t be pretty and quite likely will be painful. And even worse, the temptation to wallow in it, to merely develop a self-loathing may be hard to resist. We all have these inner shames, and we can either collect them intact or we can work our way through and then dispose of them. The only chance we really have to emerge into a new future, one where we don’t, as a reflex-response, merely repeat the same stupid and banal evils, is if we allow ourselves to be honestly horrified by their consequences. At each detail and at each level, we need to remind ourselves that just as we willingly did what we did, we can willingly choose otherwise next time.
Our tradition overuses the phrase יראת שמים, Yirat Sh’mayim, fear of heaven. All too often it’s presented as fearing retribution from an unpleasant anthropomorphic deity. Rather, we can analyze it at a deeper level, understanding that יראה, Yirah, the word which is usually translated as fear is based on the root ראה, Re’ah, which means to see. שמים, Sh’mayim, which does refer to Heaven, is a composite word containing the words אש, Aish, fire, and מים, Mayim, water, the elemental opposites. A more profound meaning, therefore, is seeing the reality of the polar opposites that are represented in each choice we make.
“רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע” See that I place before you today the Life and the Good as well as the Death and the Evil (Devorim 30:16). This is the real sense of יראה, Yirah, “fear” we want to achieve on Yom Kippur. It’s not merely theoretical, as our self-exploration can all too painfully inform us.
But the liberation of being able to choose freely, with an honest sense of understanding the concept of consequences, next time, is truly a joyous, rare and precious gift. For God’s sake, and our own, let’s not squander it this time around.
G’mar Chatima Tova, the best is ahead if we choose it.