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Getting to the Root

September 26, 2020

One of the central prayers of the Yom Kippur service is the וידוי, or confession. The Rambam (in Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1) makes it very clear that confession is the most basic component of teshuvah. He writes, “כל מצות שבתורה... כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות לפני הקל ברוך הוא, if a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah... when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before G-d.”  We recite the formal vidui nine times over the course of Yom Kippur, and one additional time at the mincha preceding Yom Kippur! So clearly the hope is that we pay special attention to this prayer.

The structure of the largest section of the vidui is that each line begins with “על חטא,” meaning for the sin (or “ועל חטא,” meaning and for the sin), and the statements are coupled. For example, we confess “על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בלצון ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בלשון הרע, for the sin that we have sinned before You through mockery, and for the sin that we have sinned before you through evil talk (lashon harah).”  Rabbi Yisroel Reisman explains that these pairings are not coincidental.  In fact, each statement in a pair has a very important relationship with the other one.  One of the statements is a specific example of a sin, and the other is the root cause, or the underlying motivation, that often causes the sin.  So, in the aforementioned example, the specific sin is lashon harah.  But what causes lashon harah? Why do we speak negatively about our friends, even when we try not to?  Why is it so challenging to distance ourselves from this harmful practice?  The answer is that we act “בלצון,” with mockery or scorn.  We are overtaken by our urge to mock, or even ridicule other people, for our own entertainment or ego.

Let's look at another example.  “על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בגלוי ובסתר ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בגילוי עריות, for the sin that we have sinned before You in public or in private, and for the sin that we have sinned before You through immorality.”  Here, the specific sin is acting immorally (specifically violating the restrictions on sexual relationships), and the root of those sins is often the fact that we struggle to act in private as we do in public.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we are only held accountable for our actions that are in public, but what happens in private is somehow less important.

Imagine (G-d forbid) that someone went to the doctor with a terrible headache for many days.  After hearing about his symptoms, the doctor decided that there was an easy solution: advil.  Several weeks later the cough returns, and the doctors gives the same prescription.  Or, imagine that someone went to the doctor because no matter how much he slept, he was always tired, and the doctor told him to drink more coffee.  Of course, these stories seem absurd, and the doctor would probably forfeit his license.  Yet, this is what so many of us tend to do on Yom Kippur.  We make commitments to be better, accept new responsibilities, and promise ourselves and Hashem that we will change.  But we do it by taking advil or drinking coffee!  We treat the symptoms, but not the root.  If every year until now I have told myself that I won't speak lashon harah anymore, and it hasn’t really worked as I had hoped, then it likely will be the same this year.  It’s like taking an advil to cure my ailment!  But it might help to try and challenge the root of the problem.  Why is it that I enjoy discussing other people's shortcomings?  Can I find a more appropriate way to entertain myself and my friends than to discuss other people’s misfortunes?  Is my self-esteem healthy if I need to mock others in order to feel good about myself?

Or if I struggle with sins that take place in the private realm, what can I do to help me feel aware of G-d’s presence wherever I am?  How can I internalize King David’s words, “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, I have set G-d always before me? (Tehillim 16:8)” What safeguards can I arrange for myself to help me make good decisions? By asking these difficult questions, and introspecting deeply for some answers, it's a lot more likely that the teshuvah will last.

So let's make these High Holidays different.  Spend a few minutes before and during Yom Kippur studying and reviewing the “על חטא’s” from the vidui, and trying to understand the relationship between each sin and its underlying cause.  And more importantly, let's really think about ourselves.  Yom   Kippur shouldn't just be a cursory review of what we did wrong this year, but a deep  analysis of what causes our mistakes.  Instead of taking an advil, let's check our insides.  Are we feeling the way we want to? Are we thinking the way we should be?  What can I change or improve that will cause real, lasting growth?

May we merit to experience complete teshuvah and renewal in this new year, and may we all be blessed with a Shanah Tovah, a happy, sweet, healthy, and growth-filled new year!

Rabbi Fox

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784