What's it All About, Harry?
by Kurt Kransfer
It's that time of year again that we all can't help but dread. - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How does this High Holiday season affect you? Are they two days which are perhaps boring and un-inspirational but traditionally endurable? Besides the long prayer services on Rosh Hashanah, does Yom Kippur with its long fast seems to take all the umph out of the specialness of the day?
The word "teshuvah" (signifying returning to the Jewish religion/roots) became popular a decade or so ago. Every one seemed to know of a friend that dropped out of college and reappeared looking like a mortician in a black suit with an equally depressing looking hat. If it wasn't your friend, then it was the son of your neighbor or co-worker. These were the new found-religion-again Jewish fundamentalists that preached hail and brimstone if I didn't and eternal bliss in this world and the next if I did type of people that tended to turn me off.
Ws God and His Goodness sort of mixed together in an inseparable salad of constantly mumbling inaudible prayers which shunned enjoyment of anything not totally Jewish black?. Was life meant to be lived amidst a backdrop of morbid self-imposed obsessions with the evils of this world and compulsive avoidance? Was participating in the rat race of life known as making a living somehow obscene? Is that really what our benevolent G-d has in mind for us?
Yet Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not belong to just those who see life as a constant mumble of supplications. Perhaps they relish spending their day in the synagogue reading ancient prayers. Yet Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was given to all Jews as a time given over to soul searching and rapprochement with ones maker no only for those who enjoy spending their time reading prayers from a book.
What is it all about and what exactly is a sin? And we should ask also, is a sin here and there so terrible? Who is perfect in this transient and material world that demands us to exert ourselves in the pursuit of livelihood and family necessities, that he could claim such self-righteousness to say that he has not sinned?
And what is punishment, for we see with our own eyes the successes of the wicked and evil doers in this world, and the lack of any justice to those who are oppressed. So how can we approach the High Holiday season in a manner that we can profit from it instead of just enduring it?
First let us understand a few basics: There are essentially three types of sins and repentance does have a part in the forgiving of that sin.
Transgressing positive commandments, meaning commandments that we have to perform some action like eating in a succah or praying etc. If the transgressor is deeply affected by his lack of action, and he truly vows in his heart not to repeat such an absence of action, then he is forgiven on the spot.
Negative commandments which are violated, meaning we were supposed to refrain from something like eating un-kosher food, etc, and we did it anyway, then the feeling of regret and remorse are not enough, we must wait until Yom Kippur and then G-d in His great mercy will grant us forgiveness.
The third category of sins is the one that the transgressor incurs a penalty of death by his actions. Although the death penalty is not meted out by the Jewish courts of law today, still, his transgression was so severe that his forgiveness can only come about through pain and suffering. Even Yom Kippur is not sufficient to help him.
The actual mitzvah of repentance as required by the Torah is merely abstaining from the forbidden act. This means that in his heart he has come to the conclusion or realization that he wants no more of this anti-G-dly behavior whether it was a positive or negative mitzvah involved. This is the main point, the fast of Yom Kippur, actually is secondary, although required.
We can understand it through a parable. This is compared to a commoner who incurred the wrath of the king. Upon realizing that his action was improper, he requested forgiveness from the king. Although the king forgave him, still the commoner brought the king a present to return the kings fond feelings towards him.
In the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the sinner brought a sacrifice as an offering after accepting his sin and regretting it. We, obviously, have no Temple and the blood offering on the altar do not exist. All we have today is the flesh and blood of our own bodies that we offer to G-d in place of a sacrifice by diminishing them through fasting.
Through the sacrifices in the Temple, the Holy influence was drawn down from above through the positive desires of G-d to give to his people. Like a father, whose son applies himself to his studies, has a desire to give what benefit he can to aid his son, so too, our Father in heaven also desires for us only to be good.
However, through our collective sins, our Temple was destroyed. What do we have left? That Holy influx that descended from heaven through the Holy channel of the Temple is now diverted and come down to us from the nations who surround us. We derive our nurture from it, but we can not apprehend the hand of G-d sending us his good. Like a loving father, who in spite of his son's errant behavior in school still sends him money, except that he does not want the son to realize that the father is still supporting him. It is sent through an agent.
This is the price of sin - both collective and individual - there is a separation between our heavenly father and us. Perhaps we prosper financially, yet to advance spiritually there is not a venue available for true advancement. Like a clerk that angered his boss, yet maintains his position, we continue to stagnate spiritually with no possibilities of advancement.
Yet even though G-d seems distant and even to some as non-existent, He is constantly watching us. Like a father who watches through a one way glass window to see how his son is behaving, so G-d watches over us, yet closer still. Perhaps if we really understood this, we would reach out and grab Him and hold tight and never let go! For after living a life devoid of spiritualism, a life that is reflected in the absence of G-d and His presence, if we were to actually latch on to Him, should we be so foolish as to let go?
This is the time set aside for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of contemplation and accounting. A time in which we withdraw from the physicality of the world to reflect on our spiritual side. Like a progressive company that views all the actions of the firm each year to assess its policies and production if its goal has been reached; and if not, what remedies are needed. We also must utilize these special days that none other than G-d sent aside for our benefit to contemplate our progress. Have we come closer to Him? Have our actions been basically in an upward direction, or have we made a dip? What can we do to remedy those actions that we did not desire and how can we increase those positive aspects of life?
Only when we cleanse ourselves through purifying thoughts and fasting on Yom Kippur can G-d return to us wholeheartedly. Obviously that is what teshuva is about. The external dressing may only be incidental.
from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine