Yom Kippur is a day of unlimited potential. More than any other time of the year, each of us is offered the opportunity to “clean the slate” and start anew. “If your sins are scarlet red, they will be white as snow; if they are red as crimson, they will be [white as] wool.” [Isaiah 1:18]
If a person takes advantage of this tremendous opportunity, the possibilities are endless. The Talmud says that a sincere penitent who truly reforms himself is even greater than a person who was completely righteous all along (Talmud Berachot 34).
How do we seize this opportunity? We do so by confessing our sins, by saying the Viddui the confessional prayer, which we say 10 times during Yom Kippur.
When we strike our hearts and utter the different sins we may have committed. It is the ultimate act of repentance. Yet despite our deep and sincere expressions of regret – how many of us, despite these sincere words of regret, how many will really resolve to change our ways.
Will most of us not run tonight to resume the way we have lived our lives until last night, to re-engage with those activities, for which at this moment we feel real remorse?
And so we need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of these acts of righteous remorse. Indeed we should remind ourselves of the words of the Rambam, that if we repent on Yom Kippur with the full intention of not mending our ways – those acts of repentance are of little validity.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen, was expounding the customs of Yom Kippur. Referring to the practice of beating one’s heart when reciting the confession of sins, he explained: G-d does not forgive those who smite their heart but he pardons those whose heart smites them for the sins they committed.
So what is stopping us from making a real commitment to change? What are we afraid of changing those which in our hearts we know are wrong?
Unfortunately most of us only change when forced to do so. Perhaps our excuse could be that Judaism does not lend itself to change.
Yes it is- true we have stuck firmly to our Torah, and our traditions, because they are central to our survival, but that does not mean that our sages have not confronted the challenges of change.
That is why Judaism is possibly at the forefront of the challenges created by the latest medical advances, and why indeed Israel is a leader, even despite her hardships in advanced medical technology. It is why Judaism has survived the challenges forced upon by our dispersion.
So we have to reject the accusation that Judaism does not confront change. Yes it does allow for change that corrupts its core tenants, it rejects change that causes strife, but it does not reject change that enhances, it welcomes change that corrects inappropriate behaviour, misguided or even faulty assumptions. It especially welcomes change that enhances the performance of our Mitzvot, of enabling us to grow. That is why the core to our survival has been education.
For us learning is a life-time activity, not just reserved for the young. Thank G-d today we have many opportunities to enhance our Jewish education.
Taking advantage of the opportunities, does not only enable us to embrace change, it enables us to strengthen our own knowledge, it exercises the mind, and it is the ultimate act of humility - when we can really say I do not know it all, and I am going to do something about it.
Today is not just about saying sorry, it is about resolving to bring in the changes. If we can embrace just one change, really mean it, and resolve to act upon it immediately, then all our pleadings on the Yom Kippur will be worthwhile.
Supplied by Rabbi Martin van den Bergh
(Published in JTA Issue September 2007)