Rabbi Norman Schloss
As we stand in synagogue on Yom Kippur many thoughts go through our minds. Probably, the one question that we may have, but are afraid to ask is: "What exactly are we doing here in synagogue?"
As we stand in synagogue on Yom Kippur many thoughts go through our minds. Probably, the one question that we may have, but are afraid to ask is: "What exactly are we doing here in synagogue?" Of course, the answer we may give is to ask Hashem for forgiveness and the blessing of life. However, do we really understand what we're saying?
For the last few weeks, we have added special prayers and supplications to our regular regimen of daily prayers. Our thoughts were focused on how to better ourselves. Our sages tell us that all of these preparations were for one purpose - to become closer to Hashem. That is why there is so much emphasis, at this time of year, on proclaiming Hashem as King. Through understanding the kingship of Hashem, we then realize our job of serving Him and striving to emulate and to come closer to Him. Only after we have come closer to Hashem can we ask Him for forgiveness and life. That is also why the emphasis on many of the prayers mentions Hashem's love for us. As the Supreme Parent, He only wants what is good and best for His children.
Next question: What is life? In a few weeks we will be moving the clocks ahead and gaining another hour. Imagine that - we will be granted an additional hour to our lives. Just think of the potential of that extra hour. Yet, most people's reaction will be: "Great, I get another hour of sleep." Is that what we want from Hashem, more time to sleep? If we were given only one month, one day, or one hour to live, how would we spend it? Now imagine, if before we were granted that last span of time, we were able to undo any wrongs that were committed. Wouldn't we jump at the opportunity?
That is the secret of teshuvah (repentance) and Yom Kippur. Hashem is granting us additional life if we would only do proper teshuvah. According to the Rambam (Maimonides), those whose judgment was not decided on Rosh Hashanah have an additional time span until Yom Kippur to do teshuvah. The question can be asked: How can a deed done after Rosh Hashanah be a credit for something done last year? Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, one of the towering Torah figures of this century, says that that is the power of teshuvah. Teshuvah can change that which was done. The window of forgiveness is always open if we just take advantage of it. The challenge seems great, but it is not insurmountable.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great teacher of Jewish ethics, gives us the following formula: (1) Set a goal. Envision the kind of person you would like to be. What can you do to make yourself a better Jew? (2) Not too much. Do not try to become a great sage or pious individual overnight. Select one character trait that you would like to improve and work on it slowly and carefully. (3) Set a limit and see how far you can go. If you have never studied the Bible before, don't commit to learning the entire Torah portion every week (see rule 2). Rather, see if you could commit yourself to learning the Torah portion for half an hour a week, then a month, then one hour for a week, then a month etc. That is the true way to attain growth. (4) Write it down. Write down what your goal is and review every night how much of your goal you accomplished that day. You will be surprised at the great inroads that you will be making by doing this.
Yom Kippur is upon us. Let us take full advantage of the gift of teshuvah that Hashem has given us and strive to become better people in the year ahead.
Rabbi Norman Schloss writes from Atlanta.
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