Yom Kippur: A snowy day at the laundromat

Isaiah depicts two very different metaphors for whitening our red sins – snow and laundered wool. How do these two metaphors illustrate the experience of repentance? 

 Removing stains today will make them significantly easier to remove tomorrow. (photo credit: BIANCA JORDAN/UNSPLASH)
Removing stains today will make them significantly easier to remove tomorrow.
(photo credit: BIANCA JORDAN/UNSPLASH)

Evidently, religious crimes have a color! Encouraging us to penitence, Isaiah the prophet exhorts us to whiten our “red” sins: “If your sins are like scarlet, whiten them like snow; if they are crimson red, bleach them as wool.” The color red is synonymous with passion and desire, and is therefore designated as the color of sin. If red is the color of sin, white is the color of repentance, as it hints of a return to a more primitive state of purity. 

Isaiah depicts two very different metaphors for whitening our red sins – snow and laundered wool. How do these two metaphors illustrate the experience of repentance

“If your sins are like scarlet, whiten them like snow; if they are crimson red, bleach them as wool.”

Isaiah

A process

Repentance can often be exasperating because it feels duplicitous. Recidivism is natural to human behavior, and often our sincere teshuva-vows and heartfelt pledges for improvement fade with the passing of time. In rare instances teshuva launches dramatic and long-term overhaul, but more often our genuine commitments wilt in the face of long-bred inescapable habits. We find ourselves continually trapped in a harsh cycle of teshuva, followed by religious failure, followed by recycled teshuva – a disheartening cycle of futility which deflates teshuva hopes. No one wants to feel like a two-faced hypocrite, and the specter of “teshuva-fraud” haunts our conscience. 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Isaiah provides a solution to this teshuva quandary. Similar to laundering clothing, teshuva is an incremental process with far-reaching and long-term effects. Unlike laundering clothing, snowfall inevitably melts, and this season’s snow doesn’t contribute to next winter’s accumulation. There is no continuity between different snowfalls. 

Cleaning garments is a process which improves the clothing even after it becomes soiled, as previously laundered clothing is easier to cleanse. Removing stains today will make them significantly easier to remove tomorrow. 

Even if we regress post-teshuva, our negative habits have been softened, our religious sensitivity has been heightened, and our ability to recover from sin improved. Current teshuva is a long-term investment for future rounds of teshuva which, hopefully, will be more effective and less arduous. Teshuva is like cleaning clothing: its gains may be reversed, but they are never erased. Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

God is our partner 

Laundering wool requires significant exertion and human labor, especially in a pre-automation era before washing machines. Likewise, teshuva requires extraordinary emotional investment. Authentic change demands the honesty to acknowledge our flaws, the wisdom to chart recovery, and the courage to change our lifestyles, and sometimes even our identities. Successful teshuva is a remarkable expression of unwavering self-honesty, free will, and fearless emotional courage. Much like scrubbing dirty linens, genuine teshuva requires massive emotional scouring. 

By contrast, snow coats our world “effortlessly” through divinely delivered storms. Though teshuva is centered upon human decisions and human effort, it is also divinely assisted, and we must invite God into the process itself. During our uncertain moments of repentance, we look to Heaven and pray for His help. We look to God to cure us of emotional callousness and to help us pray fervently rather than listlessly. We ask Him to help clear our minds of confusion and indecision, and to empty our hearts of crass desire and selfish cowardice. We hope that He will walk us through a dark and confusing forest of sin. 

By comparing teshuva to snowfall, Isaiah wants us to invite God into the process of teshuva rather than shouldering this immense burden on our own. 

Cover, don’t cleanse

Soiled clothing becomes discolored, and laundering them restores their original sheen and bright hue. By contrast, snow doesn’t alter the color of the ground but merely carpets it with a white plate. The color of the earth underneath snow hasn’t been transformed, yet a snow-covered surface appears pure and undisturbed. The shiny gloss of a snow-covered area isn’t intrinsic to the ground underneath, which remains darkened. 

Ideally, we strive for transformational teshuva which reforms behavior and eliminates sin. However, teshuva comes in many varieties. When we don’t achieve ideal teshuva, we must be satisfied with lesser grades. One form of “partial teshuva” is a snow-like “covering up” of our failures, even without correcting them. In healthy relationships, passion and commitment help us overlook annoyances and frustration. Love and affection “cover up” our hurt and disappointment. Even without resolving differences and clashes, love and devotion allow us to disregard them. 

Our relationship with God is no different. Short of attaining perfect teshuva, we hope for a snow-like covering of our sins. We may have sinned egregiously, but we expect that our love for God and His for us “cover” those stains in the same manner that snow covers the ground. 

Yom Kippur should not become solely a trip to a religious laundromat. It must also be a day of serene snowfall in which the peaceful flakes of God’s love for us covers the ugliness of human betrayal and misconduct. Laundering wool reminds us that teshuva is incremental and a lifelong process. Alternatively, snow-white teshuva comforts us with the confidence that God actively collaborates with our teshuva, much the same way that He delivers snow. Additionally, snow reminds us that we may not be able to remove discoloration, but we can still cover it up with the exquisite radiance of our love for God. 

Horizons of teshuva

Successful teshuva is pivoted upon a searing process of penetrating self-introspection. Detailed microanalysis of our behavior is vital to change, and without drilling down to our specific sins, teshuva will always be external and faint.

However, in addition to drilling down to details, teshuva must also stretch our imagination beyond our particular sins and beyond our personality flaws. Repentance must address a broad sweep of our experience and the full totality of our personality. Just as no one would launder a single strand of wool, teshuva must cleanse the entire “garment” of our persona. 

How far can we stretch our teshuva? Can we eliminate sin, but also improve character? Can we calibrate our opinions and positions to better align them with religion and with moral integrity? Can we become more sensitive, more honest, more selfless, more idealistic, more courageous, and more compassionate people? Can we clean our entire “wardrobe” and not just bleach an individual strand of wool? 

Territories of teshuva

The image of snowfall also stretches our teshuva, but in a very different manner than the stretching of cleaning clothes. Snow doesn’t fall on an isolated district but covers an entire region or a broad territory. Widespread, snow-like teshuva demands that we consider a broader horizon – not just our own religious experience but the religious state of society. If teshuva is like snow, it must “fall” upon a broad territory and not just upon our own small patch of land. 

Who do we pray for on Yom Kippur and who do we seek penitence for? Our hopes and dreams on Yom Kippur cannot begin and end in our own backyard. Society is hurtling through tumultuous times and in dire need of moral instruction and religious inspiration. Our state is badly splintered and politically crippled and still struggling with various forms of spiritual malaise. 

During Yom Kippur, can we look out the window and imagine a healthier world, with more civility and less hostility? Can we pray for our state and its citizens to achieve the harmony we have waited for? Can we pray for a world closer to God and to His spirit? Are we too busy scouring our souls with detergent that we don’t notice the snow outside?  

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.