“For the sin that we sinned before you with the evil inclination”.
The double alphabetic acrostic of the al chet lists a wide range of areas in which we have not lived up to our potential. Misuse of speech, lack of integrity in our monetary dealings, getting caught up in the loose moral values of our society, infighting, and our general lack of respect for man and G-d are some of the sins mentioned.
“And G-d saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth; every impulse of his innermost thought was only for evil, all day long” (Breisheet 6:5). Man is engaged in a constant struggle between his natural desire to sin and his yearning to live up to the Divine image in which he was created. “If this disgusting thing (the desire to sin) encounters you, drag him to the study hall” (Sukkah 52b). Why do we need a specific al chet relating to the evil inclination? Is not all sin the result of the evil inclination itself?
We must constantly be on guard against the evil inclination—and this yetzer hara is a very cunning and conniving creature, appearing in many guises and forms. However, the yetzer hara is not all bad; it can actually help us in our service of G-d. Without it, very little—if any—good could be accomplished. Our sages teach that if not for the yetzer hara, people would not be proactive; they would not build nor procreate (Breisheet Rabba 9:7). Without the potential for bad, no good would be able to come about. If this were not so, we would all be angels—flawless, but without any potential for growth. Since one’s natural desire to do bad is stronger than the desire to do mitzvot—just witness our efforts to exact revenge when we are angry at someone, as opposed to our efforts to help a friend—by channeling our evil impulse into a positive activity, we are actually increasing the good that would have otherwise been possible. One can grow only through struggle. By properly channeling our yetzer hara we become people of stronger character.
The Talmud (Shabbat 55b) tells us that “four died due to the advice of the snake (as they did not sin) and these are they: Benjamin, the son of Ya’akov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; and Kalev, the son of David”. One would think that these four truly righteous people, who lived their entire lives without sin, would be the four most revered people in our tradition; yet many have not even heard of all of these people. Our greatest role models, people like Abraham, Rivka, Ya’akov, Moshe, and Aharon, are not on this list. David’s son and father make the list, but not our “King, who lives forever”.
There is a simple reason for this: Abraham, Rivka, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon and David all sinned, along with all our other role models. A life of growth is not possible without occasionally sinning. If we do not fall, we cannot rise. What made our Avot and Imahot models for all succeeding generations is the fact that they learned and grew from their mistakes. It is in this vein that Reish Lakish teaches (Yoma 86b) that a true penitent will have his sins “made into” mitzvot. That desire for truth that caused Moshe to hit the rock was what gave him the character to lead a stiff-necked people for forty years. That sense of tolerance that had Aharon “allowing” the sin of the golden calf was what made him the lover of peace and the seeker of peace. That concern for Moshe’s family that led Miriam to speak lashon hara against Moshe gave her the trust and confidence of the women of Israel. What is so remarkable about these great leaders is how they were almost always able to channel their inclinations toward positive ends. We hear about their sins because there are so few of them.
On Yom Kippur, we have a lot of reasons to say the al chet. We can be forgiven for our sins—provided we learn from them, we grow stronger from them and we become better people due to them. How tragic when one sins, and the only result is the evil which follows! For this, we need to say an additional al chet; for the sin we have sinned with our evil inclination. May we have the strength to admit our mistakes, to learn and grow from them, and most importantly, not to repeat them.