"Every man's enemy is under his own ribs -- i.e. his own desires." (Chovot
Why is it that some people, of seemingly no extraordinary talent, achieve way
beyond that of their peers? Einsteins and Edisons are born out of systems that
once declared them failures. What skills did they possess which allowed them to
achieve so much?
We need only look inside ourselves to see that in the "modern"
educational system, it is often not so much what you learn that makes for such
greatness, but rather, what you don't learn.
"There is one weapon which disables the mightiest of warriors and makes
waste a hitherto invincible army. When "I can't" is whispered ever so
quietly from the heart of the bravest of men, the smallest mouse might as well
be the most fortified tank, for against neither will this soldier do
A child's first breath is as much a miracle for us and no less for the baby.
After nine months, oxygen, which previously flowed through the fetus' veins from
the mother's own blood, now has to be processed by an untested lung -- an organ
needing such precision and systems coordination that it would test the skills of
a NASA technician.
The child does not think, "This is an impossible world, how can my lungs
possibly process the oxygen I need?" Rather, it is unaware of any
limitations, and knows not the pain of failure. Ridicule and defeat are not part
of the infant's vocabulary.
Is a lung practical? Is the act of walking practical in a world where things do
not stand on less than three legs? Everything for this child is possible,
everything it will try.
Limitations are something it will learn.
All things have a good and a bad, a positive and a negative. Limitations
similarly have these two aspects. It is sometimes important to realize one's
limitations. But how much more do we tend to adopt the negative part of
limitations. Imagine for a moment if Alexander Graham Bell had said, "You
have to be practical." Where would the world be today!? Imagine if the
unborn child could fathom the intricacies necessary to breathe, it would give up
before even trying!
As children grow up, they learn apathy. Or to be more accurate, adults teach
WHO ARE WE?
depressing a thought that we may be locked into some definition of who we are.
But whose definition are we locked into? Surely it is only our own. The agility
of our tongues to say a myriad of "I can'ts" has destroyed our ability
to dream. We are so clear and definite on what is and what is not possible, that
we have become predictable. There is no spontaneity left in us. We have lost the
spark in our living.
As we go through life, we remember our failures and hold on to them dearly. We
analyze them, and deduce further what we can't do. This becomes our lifetime
baggage. Our mistakes shape our character and our personality by dulling our
goals and dreams.
If we could just stop saying, "I can't," a new world would open up.
Try taking "I can't" out of your vocabulary. Be serious about it.
Every time you say "I can't," give 10 dollars to charity.
Yom Kippur is about stopping the "I can'ts" and becoming an "I
can" person. It is the day when we cast away the mistakes that define our
limitations. On Yom Kippur, we affirm: "These mistakes are not me. It was
merely a temporary lapse in judgment. I won't do it again. I can achieve greater
and bigger. I only have to try."
King David tells us: "[God] opens His hand and gives to all those who
want" (Psalm 145:16). In truth, we can do whatever we want. The only
condition is that we have to "want." If we don't want, then God cannot
In the secular world, dreams are for Mary Poppins and Snow White. They are
laughed at, ridiculed and patronized. As we grow older, we categorize dreams as
fantasy and fairy tales. The "real world," we are told, is far more
Yom Kippur is a time to return. A time to dream again the wildest of dreams, and
to plan their execution. A time to rethink and regain our refreshing hope in
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Question 1: If you were born today with no concept of failure, what would you
attempt to achieve?
Question 2: When was the last time you developed a major new life dream? Do you
spend time thinking about new dreams?
Question 3: What have been your biggest dreams and life goals? How do you
continue to nurture and pursue those dreams now?
holiest day of the Jewish year. Might as well know what we're doing and get it
ANGEL FOR A DAY
What are "angels?" Angels are completely spiritual beings, whose sole
focus is to serve their Creator.
On Yom Kippur, every Jew becomes like an angel. As the Maharal of Prague
"All of the mitzvot that God commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to
remove, as much as possible, a person's relationship to physicality, until he is
completely like an angel."
Just as angels (so to speak) stand upright, so too we spend most of Yom Kippur
standing in the synagogue. And just as angels (so to speak) wear white, so too
we are accustomed to wear white on Yom Kippur. Just as angels do not eat or
drink, so too, we do not eat or drink.
There are five areas of physical involvement which we remove ourselves from on
Yom Kippur. They are:
Eating and Drinking
Applying oils or lotions to the skin
Wearing Leather Shoes
Throughout the year, many people spend their days focusing on almost nothing
else besides food, sex, work, superficial material possessions (symbolized by
shoes) and superficial pleasures (symbolized by anointing). On Yom Kippur, we
restore our priorities to what really counts in life.
As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes:
"On Yom Kippur, the power of the evil inclination is muted. Therefore,
one's yearning for spiritual elevation reasserts itself, after having lain
dormant as a result of sin's deadening effect on the soul. This rejuvenation of
purpose entitles a person to special consideration and forgiveness."
Following the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with God to forgive the people. Finally
on Yom Kippur, atonement was achieved and Moses brought the second set of
Tablets down from Mount Sinai.
From that day forward, every Yom Kippur has carried with it a special power to
cleanse the mistakes of Jews (both individually and collectively) and to wipe
the slate clean.
Though while Yom Kippur atones for transgressions against God, this does not
include wrongs committed against other human beings. It is therefore the
universal Jewish custom – some time before Yom Kippur -- to apologize and seek
forgiveness from any friends, relative, or acquaintances whom we may have harmed
or insulted over the past year.
THE FAST ITSELF
The Yom Kippur fast begins at sundown, and extends 25 hours until the following
The afternoon before Yom Kippur, it is a special mitzvah to eat a festive meal.
As far as making your fast easier in general, try to pace your intake throughout
the previous day by eating something every two hours. At the festive meal
itself, eat a moderate portion of food so as not to speed up the digestion
process. Also, don't drink any coffee or coke, because caffeine is a diuretic.
Heavy coffee drinkers can also avoid the dreaded headache by slowly reducing the
amount of coffee consumption over the week leading up to Yom Kippur.
After a meal we generally get thirstier, so when you complete the festive meal,
leave some extra time before sundown to drink. Also, drinking lukewarm water
with some sugar in it can help make you less thirsty during the fast.
IN CASE OF ILLNESS
If someone is ill, and a doctor is of the opinion that fasting might pose a
life-danger, then the patient should eat or drink small amounts.
The patient should try to eat only about 60 cc., and wait nine minutes before
eating again. Once nine minutes have passed, he can eat this small amount again,
and so on throughout the day.
With drinking, he should try to drink less than what the Talmud calls "melo
lugmav" -- the amount that would fill a person's puffed-out cheek. While
this amount will vary from person to person, it is approximately 80 cc., and he
should wait nine minutes before drinking again.
How does consuming small amounts make a difference? In Jewish law, an act of
"eating" is defined as "consuming a certain quantity within a
certain period of time." Otherwise, it's not eating, it's
"nibbling" -- which although it's also prohibited on Yom Kippur, there
is room to be lenient when one's health is at stake.
The reason for all these technicalities is because eating on Yom Kippur is
regarded as one of the most serious prohibitions in the Torah. So while there
are leniencies in certain situations, we still try to minimize it.
Note that eating and drinking are treated as independent acts, meaning that the
patient can eat and drink together during those nine minutes, and the amounts
are not combined.
Having said all this, if these small amounts prove insufficient, the patient may
even eat and drink regularly. In such a case, a person does not say Kiddush
before eating, but does recite "Grace After Meals," inserting the
"ya'aleh veyavo" paragraph.
Now what about a case where the patient's opinion conflicts with that of the
doctor? If the patient is certain he needs to eat to prevent a danger to health,
then we rely on his word, even if the doctor disagrees. And in the opposite
scenario -- if the patient refuses to eat despite doctors' warnings -- then we
persuade the patient to eat, since it is possible that his judgment is impaired
due to illness.
Wishing you an easy fast and a meaningful Yom Kippur!
Repentance is predicated on wanting to stop the transgression. To achieve this,
we must first analyze the dynamics of transgression. How does it happen?
There are four stages in the process of transgression:
To illustrate, let's use the example of someone trying to stop smoking. The
scene is a man sitting by his desk at the office doing work. He has a history of
addiction to cigarettes and has been trying to stop smoking, unsuccessfully, for
three months. Let's observe him and see what happens...
At first the urge for a cigarette is DORMANT. It can be activated at any time
but at this point the craving for a cigarette is nothing more than potential
The door to our smoker's office is opened briefly by a co-worker and a wisp of a
cigarette passing in the hallway floats invitingly through the opened door and
seductively over to the our friend's nostrils. He now begins to think of having
a cigarette. The passion has become ACTIVE.
However, he does not smoke in his office and cannot go at the present time to
the smokers' lounge set aside down the hallway. He continues working...
Our friend gets up to use the restroom. He's thinking about a cigarette now but
the urge is not out of control.
After leaving the restroom he can either turn right and head back to his desk or
head left to the smoking lounge. He makes a fateful left turn, (to supposedly
speak to a friend) and finds himself moving quickly almost out of control into a
SITUATION. In this case the smoking lounge.
The situation is where the transgression can be repeated and where the urge to
transgress increases in intensity to unbearable degrees.
He enters the smokers' lounge and is immediately offered free cigarettes by all
his friends. The smell of the freshly ground coffee mixed with tobacco smoke
drives his passion for a cigarette into uncontrollable proportions, and before
he knows it he is inhaling deeply a robust blend of tar, nicotine and carbon
monoxide, wondering if he is ever going to "kick the habit."
Now I ask you the following question:
At what point did our friend lose the battle?
It was not in the smokers' lounge. It was when he turned left instead of right
after leaving the restroom. Because even though at that point his forbidden
desire was ACTIVE, he could not have fulfilled it because he did not have a
SITUATION that afforded him the opportunity to smoke.
What we see from this story is that there are times when our behavior is still
in our own hands. And although we may crave that which is forbidden, if we can
keep ourselves away from SITUATIONS that afford us the chance to slip into the
negative behavior, then we will be spared the transgression.
Not only that, but the urge to transgress, although it may be strong, usually
does not reach uncontrollable proportions (impassioned frenzy?) until we are in
As you can see from the story above, it is difficult to avoid the second stage
when our desire becomes ACTIVE, since we live in a world with so much stimuli.
But it is rare that a person is placed in a SITUATION against their will.
Therefore, the key to overcoming transgression is keeping out of SITUATIONS.
Because of what we have just mentioned, part of breaking the pattern of
transgression is to know when and where the transgression is usually performed.
That way, one can avoid situations that make the transgression possible. This is
not a cop-out, an escape. Rather it is an effective strategy.
The ultimate goal is that once you are stronger, you can indeed re-enter that
same situation -- and not stumble this time.
That is what we call "complete teshuva." That's heroic.
You now have to ask yourself three key questions:
Question 1: WHAT? What do you want to change?
Question 2: WHERE? In what location(s) are you most prone to committing this
Question 3: HOW? How are you going to avoid getting into this potentially
negative situation the next time it arises?
GETTING UP AGAIN
Our sages teach us that the difference between a righteous person and a
non-righteous person is not "that one makes mistakes and one does
Rather, the difference is that the righteous person makes mistakes and refuses
to give up. While the non-righteous person gives up after he makes a mistake.
A righteous person can be compared to a baby learning to walk. The baby takes a
few steps forward and falls down, only to get up and keep moving again. Imagine
if the baby would give up after the first few knocks! He would never learn how
When we set out to do teshuva, we must know that it is a process that takes
time. If you are not getting where you want to be, don't get discouraged!
God knew right from the start that humanity would make mistakes.
Indeed, King Solomon, one of the wisest men of all time, wrote: "There is
no righteous person on the land who does good and does not sin"
Even if we fail to achieve the desired results, the very fact that we are trying
to change is beloved by God.
So when you fall down, remember: It is an essential stepping stone to your
Skip the paralyzing guilt. The classical confession, repeated five times during
the prayer service, helps us do the inner work to maximize the power of the day.
There once was a draught in the land of Israel. The sages pleaded with God for
mercy, but their prayers went unanswered in spite of their sincerity. Finally,
Rabbi Akiva prayed, addressing God as Avinu Malkenu, our Father, our King. It
was then that rain began to fall, nourishing the parched earth.
Rabbi Akiva's words opened the hearts and souls of not only that generation but
also many future ones. We learned to see God not only as a monarch, but also as
a loving parent.
One of the most distinct characteristics of a parent/child relationship is its
unconditionality. Parents and children may feel alienated, but they can never
cease to be linked. On Yom Kippur the opportunity to re-experience God's love
for us is greater than it is at any other time. What that means is that God
makes it possible to break down the most resilient barrier that we can erect
separating us from our Father -- the barrier of sin.
The word "sin" has a terrible reputation. It is associated with
paralyzing guilt that reduces our souls to dust. In fact, there are three words
in Hebrew that describe "sin" which is really a failure of honest
One is chet, which literally means missing the mark.
The second is avon, which means desire.
The third is pesha, which means rebellion.
When we take responsibility for our actions and for the direction that our lives
have taken, (even when our decisions were colored by other people or external
factors), we can begin to move forward. As long as we deny where we stand today,
we will find that we are still there tomorrow.
There is one major obstacle to self-change. The past cannot be re-lived. The
patterns that we have allowed ourselves to develop are extremely difficult to
How many times do we find ourselves trapped by the insidious, invisible
automatic pilot. What frees us from the burden of self-imposed rigidity is God
Himself. He is willing to reverse the laws of cause and effect in order to
liberate us from ourselves. The one condition that is required is that we take
responsibility for our choices, and regret the damage that we have done.
The classical confession is the means that we use to do this. It is said five
times on Yom Kippur during each of the silent standing prayers, the "Amidah".
Rather than ending our silent devotion by beseeching God to grant us peace, we
add the confession before concluding.
By studying this confession, we can do the inner work to maximize the power of
the day. Let us look at it carefully.
We have become desolate.
We commit ourselves to recognizing that our failures are self-destructive.
We have betrayed our potential, our families, God Himself.
We can question who we have been in our multifaceted role as a human being and
as a Jew? Who have we betrayed? Is it not ultimately ourselves as well as
We have stolen.
This includes not only financial theft, but theft of time, and misleading others
into thinking that we are more accomplished than we actually are. This sin is
especially damaging in that it reflects the fact that we have rejected the role
in life that God has given us.
We have spoken with "two mouths" -- we have been hypocritical.
We can confront our fear of rejection, and the dishonesty that we use to
"cover ourselves." Who are we afraid of? Why? Should we not be more
willing to tackle the reality that confronts us?
We have made things crooked.
This includes all forms of dishonest rationalizations. Our hunger for decency
sometimes is satiable through false justifications. We must remember that even a
murderer invariably justifies himself at the time he commits the crime. We must
rise above the false self-pity that at times lets us slip into situational
And we have made others wicked.
We have forced others into destructive responses. An example of this is a parent
who slaps the face of an older child, almost forcing him into loss of verbal
(and possibly even physical) self-control.
We have sinned intentionally.
The classical example is lying, in which case there is always full awareness of
the factuality of the sin. How could we learn to bring God back into our
consciousness when we are blinded by stress and fear?
We have been violent.
This includes all forms of taking the law in one's own hands. Almost everyone
has fallen into the trap of letting the ends justify the means.
We have become desensitized to dishonesty.
Dishonesty feels "normal" to us. When we live in a time and place
where lying is "normal," we can endeavor to envision our spiritual
heroes in our shoes.
We have given bad advice.
This often is the result of being ashamed to admit ignorance. One of the most
beautiful aspects of taking counsel from the Torah sages is their refreshing
ability to use the words "I don't know." Committing ourselves to
re-introduce this phrase can be life-changing.
We have disappointed God, ourselves and others by not living up to our promises.
We tell people that we can be counted upon, when we really mean that we can be
counted upon if things work out. When they don't, it is important to ask one's
self: Why is it that in situations where integrity and convenience can't
coexist, it is always integrity that must be sacrificed?
We have been contemptuous.
We have diminished the importance of people and values that deserve respect. We
all know at least one person who makes himself/herself "big" by
devaluing others. If that person is ourselves, then we must question the
direction that our need for self-esteem takes us.
We have rebelled.
We, in our bottomless insecurity, have found ourselves negatively proving
ourselves endlessly both to God and to our fellow man. How many times this year
could our lives been spiritually improved, if we didn't have to
"teach" anyone a lesson?
We have enraged people.
We have purposely pushed other people's buttons. We have caused God's anger to
be awakened by our self-destructive behavior. We've let our desire for human
connection lead us to destructive interactions.
We have turned aside.
We have confronted truth and looked the other way. We have chosen ease over
We fallen victim to our impulses.
Would our lives be improved if we learned to not only ask ourselves the question
"what" but the question "when"? The desire for instant
gratification has financial, physical and emotional implications.
We have broken standards of behavior that we know to be right and then justified
this because of our egotism.
Have we not found ourselves justifying bad decisions with lie after lie? Have we
not moved forward because to do so would mean tacitly admitting that our present
level is not "perfect" enough to gratify our bottomless egos?
We afflicted others.
Even in situations where harsh words are demanded, whenever we go beyond what is
called for, we are accountable for the pain suffered by every unnecessary word.
While we may be just letting off steam, our victims may believe every word that
we say. The result can be a tragic diminishment of their self-esteem.
We have been stiff-necked.
We have been stubborn and unwilling to redefine ourselves. No matter how wrong
we are, we insist that we are right.
We have been wicked.
This includes all forms of physical aggression or financial injustice (such as
refusal to repay a loan). When Moses saw his fellow Jew striking another Jew, he
called him "rasha." He never used this phrase in any other context.
We have been immoral.
This includes all forms of dehumanizing "hunting" members of the
opposite sex, or the equally dehumanizing choice of becoming "prey."
Do we question why we select a specific image to be the one that we use to let
the world know who we are?
We have erred.
This, of course, is not a reference to sins that we have done because we weren't
aware of better options. This refers to the choice to remain ignorant out of
fear or laziness that inevitably leads to making further mistakes. This is a
good time to make a solid, defined resolution to learn more. Let it replace the
vague realization that time is slipping by.
We have misled others.
We have spread our ignorant assumptions and thereby victimized others.
The purpose of studying this list is not to wallow in guilt. It is to bring us
to the point where we can honestly come before God and say, "This is who I
was. Help me be who I want to be. Help me find my truest self."
His help is guaranteed. He is our Father, not only our King.
Everybody knows that New Year's resolutions are meant to be broken. But not in
Judaism. The High Holidays are the best time of year for real, long-lasting
change. The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.
Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which
is often translated as repentance, actually means to "return." Return
to God. Return to our pure self.
How do people become interested in self-improvement?
People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or
another. This suffering limits an individuals freedom and is often painful.
Hence, people want to change... to improve. To be free once again.
How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?
There are four steps of teshuva:
Regret. To regret what we have done wrong.
Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought
Verbalization. To verbally state the transgression
Resolution for the future. To be determined not to let the transgression happen
Now let's explain the four steps:
What is regret and how is it different from guilt?
Well , we all know what guilt is. That uneasy queasy feeling that we have done
something terribly wrong that can never be fixed...
But how is regret different?
Here is an example of regret:
An eccentric but wealthy, elderly acquaintance tells you to meet him at 2:30 pm
on Sunday afternoon at Starbucks for coffee.
At 2:00 pm you are busy watching a great movie and decide not to show up to the
That evening you find out that this elderly gentleman made the 2:30 appointment
with 10 people, you being one of the 10.
Only five out of 10 arrived at the meeting. To each of the five who showed up,
your eccentric acquaintance gave a bank check for $50,000 dollars.
Now you know what regret is. The feeling of missed opportunity.
When you find out that you missed out on 50 grand for a stupid movie, you feel
regret, not guilt.
When we go against the will of God, the feeling we are supposed to have is
regret. What a lost opportunity! We lost a piece of eternity!
2) LEAVING THE NEGATIVITY BEHIND
Imagine a drug addict who arrives at a rehab center for detox treatment. His
parents leave him at the entrance and wish him luck after a tearful but hopeful
goodbye. Little do they know that their addict son's suitcase is lined with
enough cocaine to send a hippo to heaven.
It's not that our addict does not want to change. He really does! He just has
not "let go" of the very things that have brought him to the negative
state he is now in. Did you ever learn bad habits from a particular roommate and
decide that you want to stop being like that? Did you ever try doing it without
changing roommates? It's nearly impossible.
"Leaving the negativity behind" means staying away from all of the
paths that lead to that negativity. This includes crafting your environment to
prevent temptation. And it means staying away from even mere thoughts, which can
lead to the obvious next step -- action.
Why is it important to say it?
There is a power to saying things as opposed to just thinking about them.
Verbalizing a thought brings the idea to a new level of reality, awareness and
The verbalization that is done after committing a transgression makes one more
fully aware of what was done. It therefore heightens the regret and strengthens
the resolution not to commit the act again.
This verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your
rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It's just between you and your
4) RESOLUTION FOR THE FUTURE
Make a firm decision not to repeat the negative behavior.
This step can be compared to stepping on the gas! Once you make this resolution,
you're really starting to move! Every minute that passes puts miles behind you
and the negativity.
You're on your way to becoming the "new you!"
God is our Father in Heaven and the King of the Universe. Connecting to that
source is the yearning of every human being.
A parable is told about a young prince. He was kidnapped from the palace and was
raised as a peasant laboring in the field -- far away from the glory and riches
of the king's house. The king sent emissaries throughout the kingdom to find the
prince, and finally, after many years, he was located.
When the king heard the news, he sent messengers right away to bring his son to
the palace. The prince was reluctant to go -- he knew nothing of being the son
of the king. The son, who had never seen anything more than a village hut, did
not even know what a "palace" was!
But the king's messengers were persistent. They gave the son a set of clothes
befitting of a prince, put him on a horse, and rode him towards the capital.
When the prince got to the palace, he was struck with fear. Everything seemed so
immense and imposing. He didn't know what to do in a palace. He thought,
"I'm a stranger here. This can't be mine. Is the king going to want to have
anything to do with me?"
The messengers brought him to a door and told him that inside this room sits the
king. The boy was scared. How would the king receive him?
The doors opened slowly. The boy saw the king, the most powerful man in the
kingdom, by whose word vast numbers lived and died. He trembled with fear. He
couldn't approach. And then, the boy realized -- it's not the king, it's my
father! They fell into each other's arms.
This is Yom Kippur. From the first of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana, we
begin our journey to see the King. On Rosh Hashana, we're in the palace of the
King -- scared, standing in judgment before Him.
On Yom Kippur, we're His children.
Living in the modern world, it's hard for us to relate to loving a benevolent
king. The kings we think of are monster dictators -- the target of revolutions
to overthrow the king!
The Jewish concept of a king is different. The king of Israel has his power
limited by the Torah: He may not amass excessive personal wealth, and he must
carry a small copy of the Torah with him at all times to remind him of his
obligations. The Israelite king was required to go into the actual heat of
battle and fight on the front lines with his people! A Jewish king has awesome
power, but he uses it all as a servant of the people. He uses his power to
ensure a society where people can live peacefully and develop their full
The Biblical "Song of Songs" is a love song between a man and a woman.
Yet the Talmud calls it the "Holy of Holies" -- the most sacred
biblical text. Why? Because love is really an expression of our deep desire for
the ultimate unity: to connect with God.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, because your love is better than
wine... Pull me after you, we will run, the King has brought me into His
chambers, we will take joy and gladness in you, we remember your love more than
wine, unswervingly they love you. (Song of Songs 1:2-4)
Consider a woman who received as a gift a beautiful diamond ring. She's
ecstatic. Everywhere she goes, she shows people the ring -- a flawless diamond.
Then one time she shows it to a jeweler. He looks at it with his magnifying
glass and announces: "There's a flaw in it!"
She'll never show the ring to anyone again. She may never even wear it again.
It's the same diamond, it looks beautiful -- but now she knows it's not a truly
flawless diamond, it's not perfect.
So what? Why doesn't she just pretend it's perfect? No one but an expert jeweler
will know! It's because she's longing for something in life that is real and
perfect. If she knows it's not real, even if no one else does, she can't take
pleasure in it.
So too, deep down, no human being wants to settle for anything less than the
The Hebrew letters of the verse, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is
mine" (Song of Songs 6:3), spell out "Elul," the month leading up
to Rosh Hashana. We long for God and He longs for us.
LONGING FOR MEANING
Now let's look at another situation. A man is working at the airport taking bags
off the baggage carousel. It's boring, but it's a living. We could do it, if we
had no alternative.
Imagine one day that the airport manager comes to this man and makes him an
offer: "I'll triple your salary. The only condition is that from now on,
when you take a bag off the carousel and put it on the floor, you have to then
pick up the same bag and put it back on the carousel. Then take it off again.
Then put it back on again..."
It's the same physical effort, and the salary is triple. But who could do such a
Why not? Because a human being longs for meaning. Working in the luggage
department of an airport may be boring, but at least there is the satisfaction
of accomplishment and helping people. If you take away that purpose, a human
being can't stand it!
We long for what's real and what's meaningful. We long for God, the ultimate
Yet sometimes we lose sight of what we want. We get distracted by other things.
How many times have we been inspired by a book or a movie, and thought
afterwards: "I want to be great, I want to really experience living."
Sometimes we followed up on those resolutions, but most of the time we just
In Judaism, we call that a "mistake." The word for "sin" in
Hebrew is chet, which literally means "mistake." Our biggest mistake
is that we want to relate to God, be close to God. But we forget.
We know what it's like when we're challenged. It's so hard sometimes to summon
the effort. We think: how can we do it, it's such a hassle. So what happens? We
end up thinking God is far from us. He's a tough, stern God, He wants too much
from us, He doesn't really love us. Then we deny His existence. We construct a
layer of cynicism -- there's really no meaning, why bother struggling. Let's
just go back to bed... Consider the words of King Solomon:
I sleep, but my heart wakes. Hear, my beloved is knocking, saying, Open to me,
my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one...I have put off my coat; how shall
I put it on? I have washed my feet; how can I make them dirty? My beloved put
his hand on the door, and my heart was thrilled for him. I rose up to open to my
beloved, but my beloved had turned away and was gone. My soul failed when he
spoke; I sought him, but I could not find him, I called him, but he did not
answer...I make you swear, daughter of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved tell
him that I am sick with love. (Song of Songs, 5:2-8)
There is a true story of an Israeli boy sitting in the hospital waiting room
while his mother was having a minor operation. Since he was religious, he was
reciting Psalms, the holy words of King David which comfort and inspire us
during difficult times.
In the same waiting room was a kibbutznik, an older man. The kibbutznik saw the
boy saying Psalms and came over to him. "Why are you doing this? This
religious stuff is old-fashioned. It can't possibly do any good!"
The boy asked him, "Why are you here at the hospital?" The kibbutznik
answered, "I came to pick up the body of my son. He's having an operation,
but the doctors say there's no chance."
A few minutes later, the doctors came out and announced to the kibbutznik:
"It's a miracle. The operation was successful. Your son will live."
The kibbutznik stood on his feet and proclaimed in a loud voice: Shema Yisrael
-- "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
What's the meaning of this story? What type of man attacks a boy for saying
Psalms for his mother?
Only someone who desperately wants to do it himself, but can't. At a time when
his son is dying, he wants to be back in touch with his God. But he's spent so
many years denying His existence, on building his life on the principle that God
is not there... But God is not really far from us. Just like we're longing for
God, He's longing for us.
SMALL, STILL VOICE
How do we connect to the Almighty in everyday life? If deep down we are all
longing for God, how can we capture that feeling?
The Bible tells us about the prophet Elijah. The Jewish people were being
influenced to worship the idol Baal, so Elijah set up a test. He gathered all
the people together at Mount Carmel (in Northern Israel), where he set up one
altar, and had the priests of the Baal set up another altar. Elijah declared
that whichever offering would be consumed, then that would prove who is the true
A fire came down from heaven and burned the offering on Elijah's altar. All the
people shouted out: "The Lord, He is God!" (We say this seven times at
the end of the Yom Kippur service). Then the people -- angry for having been
misled -- turned on the priests of Baal and killed them.
It was a big miracle, but it didn't work. The evil Queen Jezebel sent messengers
to kill Elijah, and he had to run for his life. While Elijah was hiding, God
appeared to him:
And behold, God passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and
broke the rock in pieces before the Lord. But God was not in the wind. And after
the wind -- an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. And after the
earthquake -- a fire. But God was not in the fire. And after the fire was a
quiet voice... (1-Kings 19:11-12)
What was God trying to teach Elijah with the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and
the quiet voice? It is that God talks to us with a quite voice of love. The
pleasure we get when we're with someone we love, or when we do something
meaningful, or witness the beauty of a sunset, or discover the depths of Torah
--this is when God shows us that He is really with us.
The entire world is God's message of love to us. Yom Kippur is the time when we
are most open to receive this message.
Awesome" has entered the lexicon as a positive term. The High Holidays are
also known as the "Days of Awe." They must be awesome!
Yom Kippur is the apex in the annual cycle of Jewish spiritual consciousness.
Despite the day's huge potential, we manage to dread it because of the overtones
of fear and suffering. In truth, however, Yom Kippur is a day of positive energy
and uplift. Perhaps what this holiday needs is some better PR!
The goal of Yom Kippur is to achieve a cathartic refocusing of ourselves on what
we really want out of life, with a renewed commitment to attain it.
In what situations do we find ourselves most keenly focused? Have you ever woken
up and thought there was a burglar in the kitchen? Ever been confronted by a
wild animal? Did you feel sleepy or have your mind on the office? No! You were
100 percent alive and alert! That's the power of fear: total focus.
Although we resent fear, people artificially induce it by adventuring (mountain
climbing and bungee jumping) or by simulating danger (suspense films and roller
coasters.) Why? Because fear refocuses us on "feeling alive," which is
one of the greatest emotional rushes possible.
The crazy thing is that we're already alive. We just allowed ourselves to forget
that pleasure, and like most things, we only appreciate them once they are
threatened or gone!
There is a flip side to this: the universal fear of "missing out."
Remember the TV show where the contestant has three minutes to fill his shopping
cart with anything in the store? Certainly he won't fill up with laundry soap or
spend his time reading comics at the checkout stand. Why? Because he fears
wasting the opportunity.
THE FEAR OF MISSING OUT
The emotion that is appropriate to feel on Yom Kippur is called yirah in Hebrew.
This word is commonly translated as "fear," which is imprecise, in the
same way that fear is an imprecise description of the emotions of a shopping
spree or roller coaster.
Yirah really means some combination of thrill, awe, and fear. The root of yirah
is related to the Hebrew word ra'ah which means to see or apprehend. To have
yirah means to see and apprehend the reality of the situation. This is related
to how the emotion of fear marshals the senses.
To illustrate, if our speed-shopper didn't feel yirah and decided to spend his
time reading comics, it is clearly because he had not apprehended the magnitude
of the opportunity. Certainly, with hindsight he will wish he'd taken things
more seriously so as not to have missed out.
This also explains the extensive use of the Hebrew word Chet in the Yom Kippur
liturgy. Chet is probably translated as "sin" in your prayer book, but
it really means to "make a mistake." This makes sense in light of
Judaism's view that our job is to take pleasure in this world. (Of course the
pleasures we're referring to are far more exciting than grabbing a dozen T-bones
in aisle 13!)
We too would be better off if we had yirah and appreciated the immense potential
that life has to offer. That's our concept of a sin -- making a mistake in not
using our opportunities properly. We should be very afraid that we are going to
miss out! Because we only have about 70 years to grab as much as we can.
The basic commandments of Yom Kippur involve abstaining from eating, marital
relations, working, wearing leather shoes, and anointing the body with oils.
This isn't to do G-d or anyone else any favors. Throughout the year, many people
spend their days focusing on almost nothing else besides food, sex, work,
superficial material possessions (symbolized by shoes) and superficial pleasures
(symbolized by anointing.) In Judaism the pleasures of this world are encouraged
and even mandated in their proper time and place.
However, we have to realize that nobody on their deathbed regrets having not
eaten more ice cream, or not having spent more time at the office. He will
regret not having spent more time with his loved-ones, not having used his time
more productively, and not having made a more significant impact on the world.
Yet why should we wait until the opportunities of youth have passed us by to
realize what's really important? For this reason, Yom Kippur is designed to be
24 hours of uninterrupted soul searching and internal expansion.
Life has so much more to offer than just the mundane. Yom Kippur is the time to
step back from all of that and refocus on the big picture. It's an opportunity
to gain a sense of yirah that we are missing out on life's most profound
pleasures, and are settling for trifles and frivolities. Yom Kippur is the time
to regret those mistakes and cleanse ourselves of them by refocusing our sights
firmly on what we really want out of life.
Jewish spirituality isn't about sitting alone, depriving oneself on a
mountaintop. It's about savoring each moment as sublime and pregnant with an
infinite potential for meaning, pleasure, and growth. The key is to be a little
bit afraid that if we don't try hard enough, we're going to miss out on a life
full of incredible opportunities.