On Yom Kippur, we say Viduy and Al Cheit multiple times, again and again admitting to our failures, our misdeeds, how we slipped up in the past year. We confess our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness. In fact, this is the theme of Yom Kippur; it is “The Day of Atonement.” We hopefully spent Y’mei Elul and the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva doing teshuva (repentance), trying to prioritize and working on our relationship with Hashem and our Yiddishkeit (Judaism). On Rosh Hashanah, we were mamlich Hashem as melech(proclaimed G-d as King), and on Yom Kippur, we stand before Him armed with our teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity) without any physical distractions, doing everything we can to procure a positive din (judgement).
In general we struggle with our bechira (free will). It’s not easy to only do mitzvos (positive commandments), to be completely focused on avodas Hashem (work of G-d). Our guf (body) vies for attention, attracted by various inclinations. Sometimes we slip up. We make mistakes, lose focus. To err is to be human; it’s impossible for us to never do aveiros (wrongdoings), never give into our yetzer hara (evil inclination). But of course, it’s discouraging to fall so many times. And, when we make mistakes, it’s easy for us to let our failures define us. Sometimes it’s an excuse for us to just continue down that path. Other times, it’s the guilt that eats us up, and we’re too paralyzed to overcome the new obstacle we now created between us and Hashem. And yet Chazal (our sages) tell us, “Sheva yepol tzaddik v’kam,” “The righteous fall seven times…and get up.”
Our nation itself, “Yehudim,” (literally, ‘Jews’) are named as such after Yehuda, the person in Tanach who was choteh (sinned), admitted his failure, but achieved greatness through his repentance. Sin creates a hindrance between us and Hashem, a lack in the transgressor in terms of his relationship with G-d. Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, in his book The Choice to Be, elucidates that the word “cheit” means ‘lack.’ (He brings the following pasuk (verse) from Bereishis (Genesis) 32:39 as proof: “Yaakov said to Lavan, ‘I never brought you a treif animal, anochi achateinu, I bore the loss…”) Kapparah (atonement), as in the root of the name Yom Kippur, is explained by the Gur Aryeh (Bamidbar 28:15) to mean “cleansing” or “removal.” Atonement is not merely about making up with an offended G-d kivyachol (so to speak). Kapparah is about removing a lack that an aveira (wrongdoing) created.
We may view judgement as a process of determining what we owe for our actions. In that view, says Rabbi Kagan, punishment is merely a deterrent from committing a misdeed. It places a barrier between the person and the wrongdoing, but it does not remove the initial desire to commit the sin. Divine judgement, however, is not punitive. “Onesh” (punishment) has the root of “nash,” “to fall away.” Punishment is the process by which impurities we’ve introduced into ourselves that interfere with our relationship with Hashem fall away. Judgement can bring short-term anxiety or pain, but delivers long-term joy. It initiates a process which leads to change that stretches beyond repairing the damage the sin created. As such, repentance helps one to achieve a relationship with the Creator on a different plane than the one the transgression occurred. He cannot “re enter” his connection to G-d through the same place as before. He will forever relate to Hashem differently, because he is a different person. Our actions change us. Yet, he can use his sin as a stepping stone, stand on top of the hurdle, to ascend to a higher facet of his character to rise above or contain the inclination. Thus, failing, sinning, judgement, punishment, is an engine for growth. Sometimes we have to fall so we can rise.
Before Rosh Hashanah, I was discussing with someone how they let certain aspects of their Yiddishkeit slip this year and how they felt like their relationship with Hashem was blocked. Things that should have just didn’t matter, and they felt very disconnected in general. Only when they took stock of the situation and took steps to change this, were they able to reconnect to Hashem and their Yiddishkeit. All of a sudden they felt close to Hashem again. Their connection was not the same, but a little bit stronger, different than before. They realized something different about themselves, about Hashem and their connection to Him.
Rabbi Kagan speaks about how Klal Yisroel (the Jewish nation) has much in common with the moon. We follow the lunar calendar, and we celebrate Rosh Chodesh each month when the moon renews itself. Like the moon waxes and wanes, reflecting more or less light from the sun, so too Yidden (Jews) reflect more or less of Hashem’s light, i.e. emulate Him and bring His kavod (honor) into the physical world. No matter what though, it is always a cycle, like the moon. One may emulate Hashem, do his mitzvos, to a lesser degree at one stage in time, but at another point he will shine like a full moon, completely reflecting Hashem’s ratzon (will).
We aren’t perfect, but we’re Yehudim; we fall, we repent, and we rise. “Ki nafalti kamti.” “Because I fell, I rose up.” Failure is not a cause for despair, it’s par for the course. It makes us a little bit stronger. Chatta’im (sins) distance us from Hashem, but Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, cleanses us, removes the lack, helps us use our sins as steps to make us taller, closer to our goal: dveikus b’Hashem (closeness with G-d).
Rivky Rochkind – reprinted with permission