The black and white of 'teshuva'

What is the 'end game' of Jewish existence,and what role do we have to play?

September 20, 2007 11:38
4 minute read.
The black and white of 'teshuva'

Jewish education 88. (photo credit: )


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When all is said and done, the essential question this Yom Kippur remains: Is the zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes? Perhaps I should explain: Most of us think of the High Holy Days as a cosmic wish list. On the one hand, we feel we must erase all the negative things we've done until now - all the sins, large and small - one by one. So we wrack our brains and dig deep into our psyche to name the places where we've gone wrong, promising not to go there again. Then it's time to catalogue all the various blessings and baubles that we'd like to have bestowed upon us in the coming 12 months: good health, a solid income, nachas from the kids, victory for our favorite sports team, etc. All this is quite normal, and we all do it - religiously. But I suggest that this approach misses the point and obscures the bigger picture of Yom Kippur. If one peruses the Mahzor that we use on festivals - including and especially the High Holy Days - he will observe that the prayers essentially eliminate the check-list of requests that are routinely set before God, day in and day out, in our weekday prayers. While on Sunday-Friday throughout the year we ask God for wisdom, clothes, health, wealth, strength, security, etc., on Yom Kippur we hardly talk about those things at all. Instead, on this one, special day, we look beyond the immediate concerns of the moment to devote our prayers to much weightier matters. First and foremost, we seek reconciliation with our creator and a release from the demoralizing guilt that can result from sin. We want God to know that we have not given up on him, and hope that He certainly has not given up on us. But then - beyond the beating of our breasts as we confess the error of our ways - we also talk about our unique destiny as individuals and as a nation. We learn that forgiveness is but a means to an end and not an end in itself. Like a prisoner just released from captivity or a student just awarded his degree, where we are going from now on - and what we do with our new-found status - is far more important than where we have just been. And so we look beyond partisan and petty concerns to deeper issues. We want to understand where we fit in to this universe. What should our connection be to Israel - the people and the land? We struggle to come to grips with God: Who is He, and what was He thinking when He created this world and put us in it? What is the "end game" of Jewish existence, and what role do we have to play? Flip through the High Holy Day liturgy and you will soon detect its underlying essence: It talks about creating a brotherhood of all creatures, while at the same time it reminds us constantly that we were specifically chosen from among the nations for a distinct mission. It evokes the image of self-sacrifice for a higher cause, for the greater good -presenting us with role models from Abraham to the 10 martyrs. And it describes the glory that was the Temple, a not-so-subtle reminder that true redemption requires a common devotion to building a country, a cohesive society and a faith-system. Yom Kippur is referred to in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton - the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Just as on each Shabbat we take a break from the normal workday routine and try to gain a perspective on our week, so once a year, on Yom Kippur, we devote the day to focusing on the broader message being sent to us from above. On Yom Kippur, we are asked to put everything - food, fashion, sex - aside to search our souls and make an elemental decision: Who, exactly, are we, and what is the true color of our stripes? Are we a person who essentially is good and wants to do good, who seeks a stronger, deeper relationship with God and his fellow man, but sometimes, alas, slips out of synch and moves in the wrong direction? Or are we someone with no basic desire to be Godly or holy, who takes Torah, and life itself, all too lightly, who wants little if anything to do with matters of the soul, yet occasionally does good things and has periodic flashes of spirituality? Even more important, perhaps, than who we are, is who do we want to be? When all is said and done, that is the real question that matters; everything else flows automatically from it. And that is precisely what we must focus on in our Yom Kippur prayers and meditation. There are two paths, my fellow zebras, and the difference between them is, well, as different as black from white. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.

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