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HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Assistant Editor    

"How can you possibly say that? I have never heard anything so absurd in my life!"

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"How can you possibly say that? I have never heard anything so absurd in my life!"

On occasion, we have all found ourselves embroiled in a heated argument. Confident of the eternal truth behind our position, we expressed our feelings in no uncertain terms, propounding the absolute fallacy in our opponent's opinion. Much to our dismay, as the debate continued and the evidence began to stack up against us, we grew less secure in our view. "Maybe he has a point," we fleetingly thought to ourselves, "should reconsider." Instantly, our subconscious need to maintain our self-respect took over and quickly expelled that dreadful possibility from our minds before we ever had a chance to give it any serious consideration. "I can't be wrong," we inwardly declared, and we proceeded to restate our position with even more force than before.

Ten times throughout Yom Kippur we will recite viduy (confession) in which we admit to Hashem our transgressions. This phase is an essential part of the teshuvah (repentance) process, and it is the primary positive obligation of the Day of Atonement. Of particular interest is the passage that always introduces the litany of transgressions: "Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, may our prayer come before You. Do not ignore our supplication, for we are not so brazen as to say before You, Hashem, that we are righteous and have not sinned - for indeed we and our forefathers have sinned."

This declaration gives reason for us to pause and contemplate its significance. What is unique about the mitzvah of viduy that we must announce every time that "we are not so brazen as to say that we are righteous and have not sinned"? We make no such statement before the performance of any other mitzvot. On Passover, as we are about to bite into the matzah, we do not declare that "we aren't so brazen as to not eat matzah," nor on Rosh Hashanah do we affirm that "we aren't the kind of people who refuse to blow the shofar." So why with viduy should we be making such a statement? Won't its truth become glaringly evident when we immediately commence the lengthy confession in which we openly admit those transgressions?

Perhaps the explanation is based upon the human weakness revealed by the scenario described at the beginning of this article. Nothing can be more frightening for a person than to admit that he was wrong. We will think and do anything in our power to rationalize our shortcomings and banish from our mind the possibility that we might have made a mistake. To honestly confess to Hashem and ourselves that we made mistakes is to say that we are not perfect and indeed need to improve. Even while we are verbally confessing our sins, we may very well be thinking that I am just fine the way I am, that these transgressions and character faults aren't really relevant to me. While our mouths declare, "Ashamnu - we have become guilty," our minds defensively retort, "This doesn't apply to me!"

To admit our mistakes with kavanah, complete realization as to what we are saying, and to mean it, can be extremely difficult. As such, our mere recital of the list does not eliminate the possibility that "we are brazen enough to say that we haven't sinned." We may very well be doing exactly that in our minds as we snugly fly through the passage.

The truth is that Hashem provides us with an extraordinary opportunity when He allows us to confess for our sins. Imagine entering the throne room of a human king and openly informing him of our many misdeeds. Could there be any greater degree of chutzpah than that! Yet Hashem is willing to ignore His honor and provide us the chance to achieve forgiveness, simply by regretting our past actions, resolving to change for the better, and confessing before Him.

In order to even have a chance at achieving a proper teshuvah, we must adequately address several issues. Firstly, we must be completely honest with ourselves. This includes undergoing a meticulous self-examination in which we look at ourselves in the mirror and try to become reacquainted. Am I living up to my vast potential? Do I realize that Hashem selected me to play a role in this world that can be filled by no other person? Am I cognizant of the many blessings that G-d so graciously bestows upon me? What motivates me in my actions? What do I view as important in life? How do these conclusions compare to G-d's expectations as delineated in the Torah? How can I go about making the necessary changes and improvements?

Even more importantly, we must come to the difficult but absolutely imperative recognition that this is serious business. Life is not a joke. Hashem tells us: "See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil. . .and you shall choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:15,19). Two diverging paths, G-d gives us, and He beckons us to contemplate the merits of both and choose properly. Nobody would even consider driving down Peachtree Road at 150 miles per hour with their eyes closed. Should we give any less thought to the way we lead our lives?

The whole concept of teshuvah is truly a remarkable one. We are given the power to literally go back in time and erase our past mistakes! May we be inspired with the courage to use this tool to its greatest extent.

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Michael Alterman, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

You are invited to read more Yom Kippur articles.

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