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Yom Kippur 5775 — 10/01/2014

Yom Kippur 5775 — 10/01/2014

You know the mysteries of the universe and the hidden secrets of every living soul.  You search the innermost chambers of the conscience and the heart.  Nothing escapes You; nothing is hidden from Your sight.  Therefore, may it be Your Will to forgive all our sins.  (Yom Kippur liturgy)

Rav Kook asks that this prayer (which is an introduction to the confessional prayer said repeatedly on Yom Kippur) seems to be a non-sequitur.  Of course Gd is omniscient, and knows exactly what is going on inside of each one of us.  Why should that lead Gd to forgive us our sins?  In my own case, I would think Gd would have to purposely ignore a lot of what goes on in my head to ever begin to forgive me!

Rav Kook identifies 3 components of T’shuvah:

  1. Regretting the past, refers obviously to the past.
  2. Removing from our personality all desire from sinful conduct.  This refers to the present
  3. Resolving never to repeat the sin, which obviously refers to the future.

All three of these components require knowledge on a very deep and comprehensive level.  Rav Kook explains:

  1. To regret the past, we have to understand how deeply our actions affect everything in the universe.  In particular, when we commit a sin, we put out a negative influence into the cosmos that gets everything in the cosmos, and all their relationships, out of joint.  The more we understand that, even perceive that to some degree, the more we will regret our actions.  “I did that?  That’s terrible!”  This is real regret, real, visceral cringing, like when we remember something awful we did to someone else when we were kids.
  2. In order to remove the desire for committing this particular sin, it is imperative that we know ourselves.  What are our motivations?  How do our selfish considerations drive our behavior?  Until we understand the “innermost chambers of the conscience and the heart,” we can’t tell if we’ve really uprooted the sin from our souls.
  3. In order for our resolve for the future to be meaningful, we would have to know all the challenges we’re going to face, and prepare ourselves to respond to those challenges appropriately.  Now since every action we perform (and every time we refrain from acting as well, by the way) sends its influence into the cosmos and interacts with everything else in the cosmos.  Even if we had full knowledge of the way this occurs, which we certainly don’t, it would be impossible to calculate the full range of ramifications of our action.  In order to resolve to be better in the future, we really require a level of knowledge that we just don’t have.

What are we to do?  Of course the first thing is prayer, which we will be doing plenty of on Yom Kippur.  Gd obviously does have the requisite knowledge of the cosmos, the parts of the cosmos, including ourselves, and all their interrelationships – “the mysteries of the universe and the hidden secrets of every living soul.”  And if, through our sincere prayers, we change our thinking around, and therefore change our behavior around, Gd will help us improve still further, based on His perfect knowledge and control of every bit of cosmic life.  As our Sages tell us, “the direction that a person wants to go, they help him from Above.”

I think there is another aspect to consider.  The basic theme of Yom Kippur is of course t’shuvah, which literally means “return.”  That “return” can be formulated as “return to Gd” (to a closer rrelationship with Gd) and it can additionally be formulated as a “return to our own essential nature.”  This “essential nature” is infinite and unbounded; in the words of our Sages, “a piece of the Divine from Above.”  In other words, what we are is what the universe is, just individuated differently.  In some sense, we contain within ourselves the same “computing power” that the universe has – all the parts and all the connections between the parts, all of the past, present and future are contained within us.

The trick is to make use of all this power.  Generally we can’t because of our soul’s attachment to the body.  As long as the soul’s connection to the body dominates its life, rather than its connection to its own infinite basis, we see ourselves as puny mortals, and can only act with mortal knowledge.  We see ourselves as mere grasshoppers, and everything in the universe reacts upon us according to that perception (see Num. 13:33).

The point of all the practices of our Tradition, and of Yom Kippur especially, is greatly to weaken this attachment of the soul to the body (without killing ourselves of course!!).  When this happens, our soul can be itself, undistorted by the material world, and is therefore in tune with the great “cosmic computer” that governs all actions in all the levels of creation.  Thus, the knowledge that is required to do t’shuvah is actually inherent in the soul, and just needs to be activated in order for it to guide our own thoughts and actions into appropriate paths.

I hasten to add that this knowledge is not primarily intellectual, but rather intuitive, as we have just recently read: Rather it is near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it (Deut 30:14).  Our Sages relate this verse to t’shuvah.

And lest you say that the argument is circular – to do t’shuvah properly we must actualize fully the knowledge in the soul, but to actualize the knowledge in our souls we must do t’shuvah, the answer is, “You’re right!”  It’s a circular, or better, a helical process.  We do t’shuvah to the best of our ability, this brings us closer to our essence, this means the next time  we do t’shuvah it has a firmer basis in our essence, etc.  As long as we stay on the path, our growth accelerates with every cycle.  We just have to make the conscious decision to start, and Gd will help us succeed.

A G’mar Chatimah Tovah to all and an easy and meaningful fast.