Yom Kippur- The Happiest Day of the Year
On the night of Yom Kippur, immediately following Kal Nidreh, we recite as part of our prayer service a verse from the Book of Bamidbar (15:26): “The entire Israelite congregation, and the convert residing in its midst, shall be forgiven – for the entire nation [transgressed] unintentionally” (“Ve’nislah Le’chol Adat Beneh Yisrael Ve’la’ger Ha’gar Be’tocham Ki Le’chol Ha’am Bi’shgaga”).
The question arises, how can we possibly claim “Ki Le’chol Ha’am Bi’shgaga,” that all the sins we transgressed over the past year were committed unintentionally? Did we not commit any willful sins the entire year? How can we honestly come before God and demand forgiveness on the grounds that all our sins were accidental?
The answer touches upon what is likely the most fundamental question concerning Teshuba. Why is God prepared to erase all our wrongdoing from our record? We understand that He is compassionate and prepared to forgive. But why does He go so far as to erase our sins from memory? It is as though He takes a video recording of our lives and deletes all segments that involve sinful behavior. Indeed, in this same verse, we make reference to “the convert residing in its midst,” drawing a comparison to repentance and conversion. Just as Halacha treats a convert as a “newborn child,” and his past history prior to his conversion is completely erased, similarly, by performing Teshuva we are able to erase our shameful past. By now most of us probably take this for granted, but if we think about it for a moment, it is mind-blogging. On what basis does God rewrite our history?
The answer is that there is a spark of goodness, of sanctity, deep within the soul of every person. Regardless how far a person has fallen into the abyss of sin, this spark continues to burn; it is inextinguishable.
The Rambam, in a famous ruling, writes that if a recalcitrant husband refuses to give his wife a Halachic divorce, the court (in the times when it had the authority to do so) would beat him until he agreed to grant the divorce. Even though a Halachic divorce requires the will of a husband, a divorce given under this kind of duress is nevertheless valid, the Rambam writes, because in the husband’s subconscious, he wants to do the right thing. The Bet Din does not force its will upon the husband, but rather removes the obstruction from the true desire of his heart to do what is proper. Every person’s true intent is to do the right thing, but our hearts are sometimes “blocked” by obstructions that we simply need to remove to allow our true will to surface.
As we begin Yom Kippur, it is natural for us to feel discouraged. Why should we bother repenting? Do we even deserve God’s attention, let alone His forgiveness? We therefore proclaim, right from the outset, “Ki Le’chol Ha’am Bi’shgaga!” Our true intention is and always has been to do God’s will. We have been dissuaded and led astray by our evil inclinations, and our inner spark has been covered over by layers of darkness, but deep inside, we all want to do what is right. All our sins are indeed a “Shegaga,” a mistake, a careless swerve off the road. Our real intention is to do only the right thing.
And this is how Hashem can erase our record. Once we find that inner spark of holiness within our souls, it is determined that all our sins were “unintentional,” and can therefore be erased from the “video.”
Our Sages described Yom Kippur as one of the happiest days of the year. We are not despondent or dejected on this day. To the contrary, we are invigorated and inspired by the words that should be ringing in our ears throughout Yom Kippur – “Ki Le’chol Ha’am Bi’shgaga!” Yom Kippur is the day which reminds us that deep inside, we are all good, we are all holy, and therefore God wants us to return to Him. He will not reject sincere prayer and repentance, because He sees that spark inside us which is never extinguished.
Three times a day, in our Amida prayer, we describe Hashem as “Ha’rose Bi’tshuba” – “Who desires [our] repentance.” If there was even a single Jew whose repentance God is not willing to accept, we could not recite this Beracha. The fact that we recite it proves that God desires the Teshuba of each and every one of us. There is no sinner on earth who cannot perform Teshuba, because there is no sinner on earth whose inner spark of Kedusha has been extinguished.
The Talmud in Masechet Aboda Zara tells the astounding story of Elazar Ben Dordaya, who was, literally, addicted to lust. He visited every Zona (woman of ill-repute) in the world, and at one point he traveled a great distance and spent an enormous fortune to visit such a woman. As he was with her, she mentioned to him that he could not repent. Her remark rattled Elazar, and he ran from her house, looked up to the heavens, and repented. As he wept, his soul departed, and a voice burst forth from the heavens announcing that he has earned a share in the world to come.
This story teaches that God will go anywhere – even to a house of ill-repute!! – in order to bring back one of His children who has gone astray. Just as a father will jump into a malodorous trash bin to save his child, similarly, God will go anywhere He is needed to inspire a sinner to repent. Even if everyone else has despaired from a certain sinner, God never despairs. He still sees that spark of Kedusha, and knows that this spark can ignite a raging fire of holiness and spiritual devotion.
Of course, this will only happen if we ourselves recognize this spark. We must trust in our ability to return, and in God’s willingness to accept us. And when we have this trust, Yom Kippur is truly the most joyous, most exciting, and most exhilarating day on the Jewish calendar.