G-D IS IN THE DETAILS
This being the time of year for honest introspection, I inevitably come to some uncomfortable moments of truth. Usually, the big one comes right before Rosh Hashanah, when I and the rest of the Jewish people begin saying selichot, the first comunal declarations of guilt leading up to the Day of Judgment.
This being the time of year for honest introspection, I inevitably come to some uncomfortable moments of truth. Usually, the big one comes right before Rosh Hashanah, when I and the rest of the Jewish people begin saying selichot, the first comunal declarations of guilt leading up to the Day of Judgment. I am bad at feeling guilt. As we stand there and basically declare: "Right now we all feel sorry for what we have done," not a year passes when I don't take a quiet interlude for skeptical reflection. Do all these people really feel sorry? At the same time? On cue? How can that be? I have known since kindergarten that I cannot summon that sort of feeling at will. Say I'm sorry? No problem. Mean it? No guarantee.
In fact, intellectual honesty demands that I recognize that I also have a hard time feeling the official emotions of all of the holidays: sadness on fast days, joy on Purim or Simchat Torah (here, admittedly, the alcohol helps), awe on Shavuot, etc. But it is the High Holidays and the associated "Book of Life" arrangement that really make me feel like a hypocrite. Who do I think I'm fooling? Have I figured out a new way to cheat the Book that two thousand years of sinners couldn't work out? Has G-d really set up a point-system where I win by feeling bad on cue, or even less conceivably, for just going through the motions? Basically, it's a catch-22: I know that I should feel remorse consistently for engaging in my vast and rather colorful panoply of sin, but I don't. So even if I can believe my own "I'm sorry"s at the time, G-d shouldn't. If I really am sorry because I'm supposed to be at this time, then it is out of fear and self-interest, and I'm being a faker and I should lose the points. And I know equally that if I am repulsed by shallow lip-service, then all the more so is G-d, so the idea of saying I'm sorry and not meaning it is completely unacceptable to both of us. So how can we have organized time for emotions, especially ones as personal as remorse and repentance, and at the same time maintain our integrity?
An idea of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a great Torah scholar in Israel, elucidated compellingly in a class by Rabbi J. J. Shachter of Yeshiva University, has offered me some new perspective. Rabbi Shachter noted the seeming dichotomy in Maimonides' descriptions of viduy (confession) - that it is not complete without both the congregation's generic declaration that "we have all sinned" and the no doubt much more difficult articulation of one's own personal transgressions. Why do we need both? More specifically, once we have said all the things we have each done wrong, why do we need a communal declaration of guilt?
He compared these two statements to the two basic divisions that comprise any relationship - the details and the big picture. In an interpersonal relationship, the big picture is that we care for each other, we are focused on each other, and we want to be with each other, all of which is summed up by the phrase "I love you". But, Rabbi Shachter noted, how often can you say "I love you" without following through on the little things - taking out the garbage, doing a selfless favor, buying a card - before the relationship falters? So too with our relationship with G-d. Overall, there is a big picture: Are we with G-d or not with G-d? Are we focused on improving our relationship in total, or not? Personally, I need to improve our relationship in a number of ways, therefore I hope to be in the group that says "we sinned". Specifically, I also need to detail where exactly I have let that relationship slide, and what I will do to work on those areas.
For me, therefore, the Ten Days of Repentance don't have to be about generating a specific emotion, nor about hypocrisy, but rather taking advantage of a specific moment of perspective: Where has our relationship gone since this time last year? What can I do during this time to focus on the weak links in the chain? Did I repair the links I identified last year? If not, admitting that lacking to myself is necessary for moving forward in this next span of time. The progress, or lack of it, may make me feel good or bad, but that is not my focus, nor, do I think, is it G-d's. I have been given this time as a landmark, a rare opportunity to step outside and look in at our relationship, for needed objective focus. So this year I will work on that, instead of generating emotions or processing prayers. Hopefully by the next time I look, my big picture will truly have G-d in the details.
Matthew Leader, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, writes from Israel.
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