On Kol Nidrei, the evening of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Reb Zushiya of Hanipol heard the cantor chant the words, "And it is forgiven," in the most majestic way. As Reb Zushiya reflected on the beauty of the cantor's tune, he cried out, "Master of the Universe! Had Israel not sinned? How could such a song be intoned before You?!"
Yom Kippur is often viewed as the weightiest day of the Jewish year. It is on this day that we confess our sins and cry over our misdeeds. However, the Mishne, Ta'anit 4:7 states, "There were never more joyous days for Israel than Tu b'Av and Yom Kippur." How can we rejoice on Yom Kippur when we feel the burden of our sins weighing upon our souls? Perhaps, the answer lies in the power of teshuva, repentance.
According to one Chassidic teaching, "One cannot be redeemed until one recognizes the flaws in their soul and tries to mend them... Whoever permits no recognition of one's flaws ... permits no redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we recognize ourselves."
Repentance is the first step on the long road towards personal redemption. However, in order to repent, we must first recognize our misdeeds. As the Rambam (also known as the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides) writes, "Do not say that one need only repent of sins such as robbery and theft. Just as one must repent of sins involving action, so too must one repent of any odious disposition in one's character … for example, anger, hatred … and so on" (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3).
Before we can be redeemed, we must first repent. However, before we can repent, we must first recognize our failings and be real with ourselves.
Now, as we know, recognizing our faults takes courage and honesty, yet without it, we cannot progress in our spiritual or interpersonal relationships, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes, "A person is unable to repent if he lacks the courage to blame ... himself. Regret is impossible without recognition of sin. On the other hand, one cannot imagine recognition of sin and commitment for the future unless [one] believes in his creative faculties and ability, and in the powers of his soul that help him sanctify himself" (from "The Rav Speaks." ). In other words, "If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair" (Likutei Maharan, Tinyana 112).
To repent means that we recognize what we have done wrong in the past. However, it also means that we believe God loves us enough to allow us another chance. But what's more, it also means that we believe enough in ourselves to feel that we deserve another chance, as Rav Tzadok HaKohen m'Lublin writes, "Just as a person must have faith in God, so too, a person must have faith in oneself" (Tzidkat HaTzadik, 154).
This Yom Kippur, as we hear the words, "And it is forgiven," let us feel that with each recognition and admission of sin we make, with each tear we shed, a new year awaits us, one in which everything we do and say will be fueled by the power of our repentance, by the power of our will, our belief in God and in ourselves. As the Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes, "If you want to become completely righteous, you will find it hard to even repent. But always desire to repent. Immerse yourself in the idea. Yearn to see the manifestation of repentance in action. Then your repentance will lift you to the level of a completely righteous person – and even higher" (Orot HaTeshuva, 14:36).
May we, our families and communities be sealed for a healthy and a good year!
Rabbi Dan Millner is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tiferet Israel, Austin’s Modern Orthodox Community. In addition to growing his warm and active congregation, Millner serves as a chaplain in the Air National Guard. Doing Good Together is compiled by interfaithtexas.org.