Question

As we get closer to Yom Kippur I am nothing short of confused.  I understand that the intention of Yom Kippur is to cleanse us of our sins, yet I cannot fathom how this is possible? From what I have been told all our actions have direct spiritual impact on us and although we may regret our misdeeds, can we really change the past?

 

Answer

Dear Anonymous

It is very difficult to understand how our sins can be erased on Yom Kippur. The laws of nature dictate that everything has a cause and effect and thus reversing our actions seems impossible and illogical. The truth however, is that repentance, especially on Yom Kippur, is indeed supernatural.

 

Everybody knows that it is very difficult to get rid of weeds. The reason being is that in order to get rid of weeds one needs to destroy the roots completely. Similarly, repentance is not about simply apologizing for and regretting our sins but rather introspecting and uncovering the underlying beliefs that drive our behaviour. For example: a person that speaks Lashon Harah can examine the underlying source of this bad pattern by asking questions such as; who do I feel the need to berate? Am I driven by a need to assert myself? Is this frivolous gossip to get attention and recognition? By examining the possible underlying cause a person gains insight into what underlying beliefs need to change in order to break the bad habits that have formed.

 

Teshuva means to return to one's true self:  a person’s intrinsic essence and worth is pristine and pure ‘neshama shenatat bi tehora hi’ (Talmud Bavli). Therefore, we see that once a person has uncovered the underlying roots of their negative actions they may destroy the spiritual weeds that are preventing their true selves from flourishing. Thus, it is through introspection that a person can establish a clear boundary between ones intrinsic being and the extrinsic negative actions that are formed. The most important aspect of repentance is letting go of the external definitions and limitations that we create for ourselves.

My sisters and I often laugh at our awkward childhood photographs (my dad once gave us haircuts that made us look like we had helmets glued on). The reason we can laugh so openly without any shame is because we view those photos as realities of the past and do not feel that our identity is defined by the child in the picture (thankfully). This is exactly what sincere Teshuva/repentance does. It allows us to disassociate from our actions in the  past to the extent that they can no longer shame or limit us.


The aim of ‘charata’/regret is not to feel sadness or depression. Depression is felt when a person is overwhelmed with the gap between their expectations of self and their present reality and thus it cannot lead to repentance or change. Repentance is achieved through the regret that a person feels when they can distinguish their true selves from the actions that have pulled them away from their spiritual essence and goals.


The Maharal teaches us that Teshuvah/ repentance changes the cycle of cause and effect. Through Teshuva/repentance, G-d gives us the ability to transcend the physical constraints of time and therefore we can even change the past! Moreover, on Yom Kippur, we are given the ability to truly tap into our essence which is intrinsically pure, good and timeless. On Yom Kippur we are not judged superficially by our actions of the past but rather by how we choose to define and perceive ourselves. Hashem looks to see the extent of our sincere resolve that will enable us to divorce ourselves from the actions that have led us astray. When we leave our sins behind as a reality in the past, miraculously, G-d views it as if it is no longer part of us.


Yom Kippur is a beautiful gift from G-d in which He offers to erase all the actions that we wish we could undo. If we unwrap this gift we will realize that everything we long to be is in our hands. May we be blessed this Yom Kippur to have a clarity of vision that will enable us to connect to our enormous spiritual potential on an individual, communal and national level.

Sat, November 25 2017 7 Kislev 5778