“We work and get reward and they work and do not get reward?” This statement, said when one completes a Talmudic tractate, articulates a fundamental difference between a “religious” approach to life and a “secular” one. In the world at large one is rewarded based on results. It is the bottom line that matters, and few are interested in why, what or how you accomplished – or did not accomplish – your goals. Excuses just don’t cut it regardless of how true they may be.
“In a place where ba’alei teshuva stand there, not even the fully righteous can stand” (Brachot 34b). This teaching is generally understood to mean that penitents are on a higher level than the fully righteous. The underlying premise of this teaching is that sinning is enjoyable—if it were not so, then why sin?—and it is much harder to give up something that one has already enjoyed than to refrain from starting in the first place. I imagine I would enjoy lobster, but having never tasted it, I do not miss it.
“It was on the next day…” (Shemot 18:13).
Apparently, something of significance had happened on the previous day, yet the Torah makes no mention of it. The day, that special day that needs no mention, can be none other than Yom Kippur (Rashi).
Our society worships greatness. Whether it be athletes, rock stars, actors or successful business leaders, they are showered with wealth and adulation and pampered wherever they go. People pay great sums of money to be in the presence of, or acquire an object once used by, the perceived greats of our society.
Integral to the teshuva process is the act of vidui, confession. One can intellectually know one has done something wrong; one can even feel terrible about it. But unless and until one verbalizes that one has sinned—and for sins against our fellow man, vidui should be done publicly (Hilchot Teshuva, 2:5)—teshuva cannot be complete. It is precisely because it is so hard to admit a wrong, specifically stating what one did wrong with no ifs, ands, or buts, that it is so necessary.
“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.
“Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: the majority [of people sin] regarding theft, a minority regarding adultery, and all with lashon hara” (Bava Batra 165a).
Not surprisingly, these three sins make up a significant portion of the al chets we recite on Yom Kippur. And if one wonders what areas one might focus on in seeking to do better, any of the above would be a good place to start.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 619:6) quotes a custom to remain in shul through the night of Yom Kippur, singing songs of praise to G-d. While some question the wisdom of this custom, cogently arguing that to do so would make concentration in prayer on the day of Yom Kippur most difficult (see Mishna Berura 616:14), the custom reflects the deep yearning of the Jewish people to feel the presence of G-d on the day of the year when He is most accessible. With G-d so close, how can one sleep?
“There are those who acquire their world in one moment” (Avodah Zara 18a). One action can define a life. While some people have to work their entire lives to be worthy of entering the World to Come, others can acquire their eternal reward with one powerful act.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” No two holidays are as thematically connected as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So much so that we view them almost as one, the bookends of the Yamim Noraim, the days of awe, which begin on Rosh Hashanah and conclude ten days later on Yom Kippur.