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The Challenge of Yom Kippur

Contrary to popular belief, Judaism is not a stagnant way of life. Its practitioners and adherents are not to perform its commands in a mechanical or ritualistic way. There are two ways to demonstrate the truth of this premise. One way requires a person to study its legal system. Through this process, we are exposed to the breadth and depth of the system. We see argument after argument as the scholars grapple with comprehending the principles underlying the commands. The intellectual creativity involved to discover these concepts is no less challenging than the study of science is to understand our physical world.
Once the principles of Judaism are discovered, we apply them to our ever-evolving civilization. Our scholars have done just that throughout the ages. So for example through the use of timers, we don’t sit in the dark on Shabbat. Today there is no doubt; we should be willing participants in the Halachic Organ Donor Society, HODS. Today how is it that there are so many kosher products on the market? Our rabbis have applied principles in the Talmud to modern food processing techniques. It is nothing short of amazing when one pauses to think of how dynamic legal Judaism truly is.
This type of change and advancement is easy to embrace and we take great pride that our religion is “with it” and “modern.” However, there is another type of dynamism Judaism not only endorses but obligates and expects all of its followers to engage in. This process is called תשובה, literally translated as “return.” It might as easily be called in today’s parlance, self-improvement. This type of change and movement is not so simply brought about but it is every whit a part of Judaism as is the command not to steal.
Fulfilling the mitzvah of תשובה properly also begins with a study. The focus of this study is not some religious object like a Sukkah. The focus is the self. This study isn’t just an academic exercise, learning concepts found in an AP psychology course that investigates human personality. תשובה too requires application of concepts. Here both the change agent and object of change are the self. This command is hard to do. We resist it and wish to stay as we are, stagnant in how we act. After all, to accomplish this command, mistakes in behavior must be admitted and acknowledged. Then a remedial course of action must be employed.
Only someone truly committed to Judaism’s deeper message, becoming a full and complete human being, will embrace this mitzvah. Here we find the second proof that Judaism isn’t a stagnant religion satisfied with how things were done before. Yesterday’s actions aren’t good enough! So while תשובה, self-improvement can occur on any day, at any time, the Torah’s system demands that once a year every person engage in this transformative process. When? Yom Kippur.
The difficulty is that we may view this process as an insurmountable obstacle. Our Torah scholars tell us we should not look at ourselves as righteous or wicked. Rather we should look at ourselves as right on the line between those two states. One more action will push us to either side.
Our Torah scholars are realists. They recognize a person cannot make wholesale personality changes in 24 hours. But we can find something, some behavior or attitude that we can change. Just work on one but that one will make all the difference in the world. Just like in science, to use an analogy, things progress slowly one idea at a time. Over time we combine and build on the ideas to accomplish even greater things. So too in the realm of human growth and change. One small change today, another later and so on. A doctor once told me, “Don’t take your pulse every day. Overtime you will see the positive effects of exercise.”
So too with תשובה. We must begin by making an honest assessment of our behavior and then embark on a course of positive change. Just one thing at a time. Over time we can look back and see how far we have come. We may not even recognize the person we once were. We will never finish the process but that’s the point. Judaism is dynamic and every mitzvah in its system reflects that notion, particularly the mitzvah of תשובה. Every year we must change.
Yom Kippur is a יום טוב. Its joy and celebration reside in its central theme that man can achieve atonement and that he is not doomed by his failures. We are by design beings that are imperfect and prone to mistakes. Judaism, however, proclaims that we must never despair. When we do sincere and authentic תשובה all sins are forgiven.
May Hashem grant each of us the ability to use Yom Kippur as it was intended, to be a day set aside for self-improvement. In this way our interactions with one another will be transformed and our relationship to the Creator will be reestablished. Yom Kippur is a challenge but one that God knows we can meet.
Wishing a גמר חתימה טובה to all,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
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