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Rabbi Yossi Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia : Effort

by Rhonda Spivak, Aug 28 2016


The High Holidays is a time of repentance. Repentance is no simple matter, yet the ritualsassociated with the High Holidays would suggest the opposite. Here is an example. On Rosh Hashanah we are all familiar with the ritual of “Tashlich”. We gather at a body of water, recite a few prayers, and then throw our sins into the water. As a woman once asked me, “Rabbi, is it really that easy to rid ourselves of our sins? Is repentance so easy?” Well if “Tashlich” is any indication, the answer to that question would appear to be yes. 


Here’s another example. One of the central prayers we recite on “Yom Kippur” is the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” - Hashem Hashem el rachum vechanun. Why is this prayer so central to our High Holiday liturgy?

The first mention of the prayer in the Torah is immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. Once recited, G-d forgives the Jewish nation. Our Rabbis have an interesting explanation of how the prayer was recited. The Talmud in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah 17b explains, “And the Lord passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed. Said Rabbi Yochanan, had G-d not said this verse (the thirteen attributes of mercy) we would not have the right to repeat it. This shows that G-d wrapped himself in a prayer shawl like the leader of the prayers and taught Moses this prayer. G-d said to Moses whenever the nation of Israel sins let them recite this prayer before me and I will forgive them”. This isquite a remarkable statement by our Rabbis. G-d teaches us a formula that can create instant forgiveness, a magic formula that guarantees forgiveness. That’s why the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” was inserted into the Yom Kippur liturgy. Back to our question, is repentance so easy? Well if “The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” is any indication, the answer to that question would appear to be yes. 

One more ritual that would seem to suggest that repentance comes easy is the “Kaparot” practiced on the eve of Yom Kippur. A chicken is swung around one’s head, and prayers are recited. The words of those prayers suggest that our sins are transferred onto the chicken. In one instant we rid ourselves of our sins. Is repentance so easy? Well, if “Kaparot” is any indication, the answer to that question would appear to be yes.In Temple times the climax of the Yom Kippur service was when the High Priest would throw the goat (Seir La-azazel) along with all of our sins over a cliff. There are many who suggest that the ritual of “Tashlich” is fashioned after this ritual. Back to our question - is repentance so easy? Well, if the ceremony of the goat in the Temple is any indication, the answer to that question would appear to be yes.

What are we to make of all these rituals? How does the mere throwing of breadcrumbs into water, the swinging of chickens over our heads, or the recitation of a magical formula help us atone for our sins? Is repentance really that easy?

Maimonides, the great rationalist, answers the question. He states the following: “Our transgressions are not like weights that can be passed from the back of one person to another. But rather all of these rituals are mere reminders to bring awe to the soul so thatwe shall repent.” (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46)

Not so fast, says Maimonides. Repentance is much more than just throwing breadcrumbs into a river or confessing our sins onto goats or chickens. The key to any meaningful repentance is the effort that we make to rid ourselves of our sins. The rituals are mere triggers that remind us to put in the effort. Real repentance starts with us, and it is very hard work. Our Rabbis exclaimed, “Open (through your repentance) a hole the size of a needle, and I will open for you a hole the size of which wagons can enter through.” (Midrash Rabah Shir Hashirim 5:2) G-d’s mercy is infinite but it is we who must open the first hole and take the first step. Without that effort all the breadcrumbs and all the chicken swinging will be of no value. 

It is with this in mind that we must enter into Yom Kippur. Our rituals are very beautiful, but even more beautiful is our heartfelt repentance. Let us not, on the holiest day of the year, merely go through the motions. If Yom Kippur is to have any meaning, then the soulsearching must begin well before. We must all take a long and hard look at ourselves and put in the effort to improve. Only then will repentance be meaningful. 

May we all be inspired by the prayers of the day to reach new heights. During the comingyear may the All Merciful inscribe us all into the Book of Life.

Wishing you all Shana Tova and Gmar Chatimah Tova,

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

Adas Yeshurun Herzlia

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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