Yom Kippur Edition: Heavenly Forgiveness

Masters of Deception
How can we wipe the slate clean?

Table for Five: Yom Kippur Edition

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

There is nothing hidden from You, and there is nothing concealed from Your sight. And so may it be Your will HaShem our God and God of our fathers, that You pardon us for all our careless sins, and that You forgive us for all our deliberate sins, and that You grant us atonement for all our rebellious sins.

Confession, from the Yom Kippur prayers

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Forgive, pardon, atone – does God really do all that?

Judaism is often criticized as a strict religion of law; disobedience has consequences. Christianity is praised as its opposite; love is supposedly the sole divine response to human sinfulness. And yet Yom Kippur emphasizes precisely those virtues of heavenly forgiveness that appear to stand in contradiction to our responsibility to pay for our sins and to be held accountable for our actions.

Contradiction? Not at all. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent the correct sequence that alone can make us human and holy. Rosh Hashanah is a Day of Judgment. It reminds us that precisely because God loves us, He gave us laws – and made civilized life possible. We teach our children obedience to ethical and moral behavior because without them evil is acceptable and the world not worthy of survival.

We are judged by the standard of Torah and our attempts to live up to its values. But Yom Kippur follows with its message that our minor failures do not condemn us as long as we acknowledge our imperfections and commit ourselves to strive to do better. The God who judges us is both strict and loving. As a parent, He sets out rules and warns us of the consequences of disobedience. Yet once we have failed the test of perfection He asks, in the language of the Day of Atonement, for sincere commitment to do better in the future. That response makes us worthy of forgiveness, pardon and blessing.

Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”

This prayer seems to beg God to accept our prayers, even if we don’t merit a positive response. But why are we worried that we aren’t “qualified?” It sounds like we’re apologizing that we aren’t “licensed” to say these prayers, yet “God is close to all who call in sincerity.”

On Yom Kippur we can wipe the slate clean from the previous year’s transgressions, even our deliberate sins. Through the revolutionary concept of teshuva, we can begin anew. Teshuva involves three steps. First, we acknowledge our sin. Second, we commit to not repeat it. Finally, when faced with a similar situation again, we resist, proving our personal and moral growth.

God’s All-Knowingness is a little frightening, but as a prompt for us to do better, God’s All-Knowingness is empowering. We may be chronically fallible, but we have free choice. Every day really is a new day.

In the morning blessings, we say, “God, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me, You safeguard it within me. . . ” This means that despite our errors and lapses, the Jewish soul can never be tarnished. The concept of sin is external to us. We have work to do to rise above our failings, but it is not beyond us. We can do it.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in the introduction to the Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor, “It is not always easy to feel God’s love but it is there, holding us gently, telling us that every wrong we repent of is forgiven, every act of kindness we perform is unforgotten, that we are here because God wants us to be because there is work He needs us to do.”

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Shalhevet High School

We’re all masters of deception, and most of us are pretty darn good at it. The human mind, in its infinite brilliance, allows us to convince ourselves of things that we know aren’t exactly true. We tell ourselves all sorts of things to justify decisions and actions that benefit us, while dismissing the inner voice that’s whispering to us “maybe you’re just a selfish jerk.”

We pull this off because we’re the only ones that know the true intentions that lie at the bottom of our hearts and in the back of our minds. Even those nearest and dearest to us don’t have a full access pass to those spots.

But the rawness of Yom Kippur confronts that very act of deception demanding that we sing out loud that “nothing is concealed from God.” We announce this declaration publicly, but these words are possibly the most intimate thing we’ll say all year. I know that I’m a fraud, and I stand before you Hashem knowing that You know the real me. My best self and my worst self.

And this has to be the context for any real attempt at teshuva. The machzor forces us to admit that as much as we may conceal the truth from others and deceive ourselves, nothing is hidden from God. Only if we’re able to accept that reality and embrace that frightening vulnerability is genuine teshuva truly achievable.

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

A prelude. Whispered by the leader, repeated by the congregation in an undertone. We attest, in poetic parallels, that the Unknowable and Omnipotent knows our innermost secrets. Perhaps a comforting realization that we are not alone. Perhaps a source of sudden terror that every action and every thought is exposed.

With this recognition as background, the words now turn to our hopes, repeated here in triplicate, using our expansive vocabulary for sin, and our equally specific words for amnesty from penalty. Taking each phrase in the familiar melody with an ever-slowing pace, the leader lingers on the final words and winds up our spiritual motors for the leap into our personal litany of wrongdoings. The sounds of frantic syncopated beating of chests fill the room.

The poetic liturgy. The potent melodies. The ancient choreography. This is the redemptive experience of Yom Kippur – the high drama of my favorite holiday.

Kylie Ora Lobell, Community Editor, Jewish Journal

During the Yom Kippur davening, we are apologizing for the sins we did not know we committed (careless), the ones we committed while keeping God in mind (deliberate) and the ones we did that went, purposefully, against God (rebellious).

Yom Kippur is a time to repair our relationship with God, to reflect on the sins we knew were wrong and the ones we did not know were wrong – or the ones we did anyway, with the purpose of damaging our relationship with the Almighty.

Every time we sin, it takes us further and further away from Hashem. We don’t know the cause and effect our sins have on us these days, but we can recognize that the more we transgress, the more we muddy our souls and forget who we really are.

On Yom Kippur, we forgo all the bodily pleasures and base instincts we have and focus on becoming the best versions of ourselves. God knows the real us: a spiritual being who messes up sometimes. Every year, thankfully, we get the opportunity to say, “I’m sorry.” Hopefully, we will be forgiven.

As long as we are humble before God, we sincerely apologize for what we did and we are committed to being better moving forward, we can get back to our true selves, and feel Hashem’s powerful presence in our lives once again.

With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Nili Isenberg, Judy Gruen, and Kylie Lobell

Image: Jews Praying in Synagogue on Yom Kippur, Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878

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