Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the twin towers of the Jewish High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe. During the ten days that boundary them we are called, invited, cajoled, commanded and adjured to take stock of our behavior during the past year.
At its best it is a fearless inventory that we share with our Creator to inspect our hearts and our actions, and nothing is forgotten. Because our tradition understands God as all-knowing and all-seeing, there is no reason to try and hide or disguise our thoughts and actions; they are already known by the One we stand before. There is nothing gained by arrogance, the attempt to claim that no wrong was done because “they deserved it.” There is nothing gained by excuses, claiming “what else could I have done?” There is nothing gained by claiming innocence, “Who me, I didn’t do anything!” Actually, the only thing gained is a world continually corrupted by arrogance, excuses, and who-me-ism.
Admittedly taking stock of our own behavior is difficult. It is painful to consider the harm we have done to others, and it is humiliating to admit that we are capable of inflicting harm. Yet we do it every day, when we cut someone off in traffic and give them the finger when we pass them, when we give a Facebook “like” to a meme that belittles another person or class of people, and even when we belittle someone for a failure while we stood idly by witnessing their struggle.
Our tradition recognizes the difficulty and eases it by insisting that we do it together. This cheshbon hanefesh, accounting of our souls, is a communal activity and is reflected as such in our liturgy. The prayers that plead for forgiveness are always written in the plural, “…for the wrong we did before You by hardening our hearts, for the wrong we did before You by scoffing and mocking, for the wrong we did before You by tormenting others, for the wrong we did before You by dismissing serious matters with a joke…”. The confessions are intentionally written inclusively so we should not think that somehow we are better than the person standing next to us.
Since we all know that we cannot be perfect, the question is, how good do we have to be? The answer comes in a story about a rabbi and their chasid (a student who takes spiritual guidance from them). One day the chasid comes to their rabbi with a problem. The chasid is a landlord and has accepted a deposit from someone who now wants to get their deposit back because they found better accommodations. The chasid knows that the law allows them to keep the deposit, but they also know that the family could really use the money and the space could be quickly re-rented. So the chasid asks, “Do I have to return the money?” Their rabbi responds, “It depends on your level.”
So that’s the answer. How good we have to be will depend on how good we want to be. May we all choose to raise our level of goodness. May this New Year be one of blessing, peace, and prosperity for us all.
Yom Kippur will be celebrated at Congregation Etz Chaim on Tuesday, October 8th at 8pm, and continue on Wednesday with a morning service at 10am, followed by Yizkor, an afternoon Healing service, and a concluding Ne’ilah service. For information please call 954-564-9232 or visit our website at www.etzchaimflorida.org.