This message is being written during the wee moments of this past year and the last days of the month of Elul, the month designated to repentance and return to G-d, reaching its height on Yom Kippur [Tractate Rosh Hashana 18a.]
However, this month also marks the last in the past year, as we prepare for the beginning of the next with no less than a full-fledged “Holiday” of Rosh Hashana, complete with festive meals and joy [Shulchan Aruch, OC 597:1.]
How can one reconcile these seemingly opposite emotions at the very same time?
It seems that serious and candid repentance will only be complete if they come together with joy. The key to this understanding comes from a well-known passage that we are obligated to read each year at this time [Tractate Megilla 31a] –
When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities. Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, “I have removed the holy [portion] from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten [them.] I did not eat any of it [second tithe] while in my mourning, nor did I consume any of it while unclean; neither did I use any of it for the dead. I obeyed the Lord, my God; I did according to all that You commanded me. Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey” [Devarim 26:12-15.]
The above passage describes the farmer fulfilling the command called “Vidui-Maasrot,” the “Confession of the Tithing” [Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ma’aser Sheni 11:1]. After a few years, the farmer must “confess” that he/she did all that was commanded in terms of treating his produce in accordance with Jewish law.
Here is the Vidui – Where is the Sin?
But looking above, where is the sin? After all, “Vidui,” said 10 times on Yom Kippur [Shulchan Aruch, OC 607], is usually accompanied by the utterance of the sins for which we must confess. Where are the sins above? It seems that all that is being articulated are good things, i.e. the proper way to treat the produce? Explains the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook:
נתנה לנו התורה דרך להערה (=התעוררות) שצריך האדם שישמח גם כן לפעמים בביטוי שפתיים על המעשה הטוב אשר עשה… ראוי שימצא בנפשו קורת רוח וימלא שמחה ושלווה, ולא יהיה תמיד בעיניו כרשע …. על כן כשם שיש תועלת גדולה לתיקון הנפש בווידוי העוונות … לפרקים תמצא תועלת לעבדי ה’ ישרי דרך גם כן בוידוי המצות, למען ישמח בהם בלבבו ויחזק ארחות חייו בדרך ה’ …”
(עין איה, ברכות ח”ב מע”ש, טו)
“The Torah gave us a way to spiritually awaken a person: one should be happy, as well, sometimes, articulating the good things one does… it is appropriate to strengthen his toil and be filled with joy and satisfaction, and not always view oneself as wicked [incomplete.] … Accordingly, as there is a great benefit of the soul in the confession of sins… sometimes you will find that is is useful for servants of God to “confess” to the mitzvot one has done, in order to be happy with them in his heart, and strengthen one’s lifestyle in the ways of God … ” [Ein Aya, Berachot, vol. 2, Maasar Sheni, 15]
It is true that no human can live a year without sin, just as perfection is merely a word in the dictionary, not one that exists in reality. But a Jew must also think of what he/she did right this year, and not just what was wrong. A Jew living without any self-satisfaction won’t last long. Comes the festival of Rosh Hashana to give us this complete picture: a combination of our trepidation for all that we did wrong, along with the happiness for all that we did right, experienced simultaneously as we stand before G-d in judgment. This dual message of repentance with tears, together with satisfaction and joy, is the legacy of the Jew throughout history and especially on these High Holy Days.
As we enter this Holiday season, let’s articulate not just what we did wrong but what we did right, and thus have a proper and complete High-Holiday experience.
Rav Yehoshua Grunstein is the Director of Training & Placement at the Straus/Beren-Amiel Institute of Ohr Torah Stone in Israel. A popular teacher and lecturer around the world, Rabbi Grunstein is also the author of “Daven your Age – An Adult Journey Through the Daily Prayer Service”. Formerly the Rabbi of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada), Rav Grunstein is a member of Beit Hillel.
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