People who are stressed out by Yom Kippur have never had the privilege of learning what Yom Kippur is all about. That’s understandable; no one ever explained the true and simple meaning of Yom Kippur to them. With Hashem’s help, let’s rectify that…
Imagine that a person has just been tried and convicted by a judge and jury of a dozen counts of the worst felonies imaginable. He now faces sentencing, which could be anywhere from 35 years to life imprisonment, with minuscule chances for parole. Meanwhile, he gets sent to jail.
During his first depressing day in jail, where he begins his nervous 10-day countdown until his sentencing hearing, the jailer summons our brand-new prisoner, and says that the prisoner-rehabilitation officer wants to speak to him. Confused and not knowing what to expect, our handcuffed hero follows the jailer to the office of the rehab officer.
Unlike everyone else in the penal system, the rehab officer had a kind face and a warm smile. He motions for the jailer to leave the room. Now, alone with the prisoner, the rehab officer gives the new prisoner a warm cup of tea and some home-baked oatmeal cookies. Astonished, the prisoner thought he was dreaming. Is this prison? Cinnamon tea and oatmeal cookies? Maybe they’re just fattening me up for the slaughter…
As if he’s reading the prisoner’s mind, the rehab officer says, “Don’t be afraid – drink the tea and enjoy the cookies. Meanwhile, I have a deal for you that you won’t be able to refuse.” He opens the prisoner’s file, which is almost as thick as the Metropolitan New York phone book, and reviews the prisoner’s infamous past.
“If we go the conventional route, you’ll be growing old within these reinforced concrete walls,” says the rehab officer. “But, alongside the conventional route where there’s little chance of parole, there’s an express checkout lane to get out of prison by way of an immediate presidential pardon…”
The prisoner sat up in his chair with wide-open eyes. Could it be? How could 35 years to life be erased in one fell swoop?
“You see,” explained the rehab officer, according to your psychiatric profile, you have one core problem that is the root of all your crimes. If we can show the court that you’ve been counseled, treated, and completely rehabilitated, then a complete presidential pardon is guaranteed.
“Do you mean that I can change overnight?”
“Not completely, “says the rehab officer. “no one changes overnight. But, as soon as you recognize your problem, admit to your weakness and shortcoming, and do your utmost to rectify, the court will recommend a total pardon for you. You’ll be a free man, but you must commit with all your heart to occupy yourself with good endeavors and make crime a figment of the past. Do you agree?”
* * * * *
Who would be the fool that wouldn’t agree? Does our above parable seem to be something from Fantasy Land in Disney World? It’s not at all.
Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment for all of creation. Some people walk away with severe judgments, with their respective punishments hovering over their heads like a sharp sword resting on their jugular vein, Heaven forbid. But, Hashem gives us a day when we can be totally pardoned, no matter what we’ve done and whatever punishment we’ve incurred. That wonderful day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
People think that it’s impossible to do genuine teshuva for every breach they’ve done in every one of the 613 commandments. And who knows what our criminal files look like in the Heavenly archives. And, even if they did teshuva for every single transgression because they were afraid of the punishment, that wouldn’t be enough for a complete pardon because teshuva out of fear only has the power to turn a deliberate transgression into an accidental transgression. That’s like turning 1st degree murder into 3rd degree murder; such a person won’t get a life sentence, but he’ll still get a year or two behind bars.
I have a much better idea, a guarantee from Resh Lakesh in the Talmud’s Tractate Yoma 86b. If a person makes penitence out of love, then all his transgressions turn into merits. It’s like a ten-million dollar debt turning into a $10M credit. Focus this Yom Kippur on how good Hashem is to us, that He gives us this wonderful day for wiping our slates clean. Focus on every gift that He gives you without taking anything for granted. Ask Hashem to help you return to Him with all your heart – that’s teshuva with love. And it really works better than anything if you want a life of happiness and fulfillment, which nothing else can give us. With that in mind, have a meaningful Yom Kippur and may we all be signed and sealed for the best New Year we ever had, amen!