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Parshas Yom Kippur (5769)


Did you ever notice how, at certain points during the long Yom Kippur prayers in the synagogue, some Jew standing right next to you will start doing the "King Kong thing" .... you know, beating his chest wildly with his fist as he cries out in prayer?

Of course, what he is really doing is called Viduy, or Confession, and it is an essential part of teshuvah (repentance) and of the entire Yom Kippur service.

You see, it is simply not enough to feel remorse for the sins that one did. After all, as an intelligent, thinking being, man has all sorts of thoughts flashing constantly through his mind - including thoughts of regret and self-improvement - but they do not last. For his thoughts to have lasting meaning, the Torah requires that he must express them as words, making them real and tangible.

This is not as easy as it sounds. It is very difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. But to verbally say to G-d and to oneself, "I have sinned" or "I was wrong" is a very powerful and meaningful act.

Therefore, on Yom Kippur, when we are commanded to do teshuvah and confess our sins, the Rabbis created the Viduy for us to say a few times throughout the day.

The Viduy is composed primarily of two forms of confession, Ashamnu and Al Chait, both of which alphabetically list all types of sins or categories of sins that are commonly committed. Sins are expressed in the plural not only to save individuals from embarrassment but so that the congregation as a whole might attain true atonement. One cannot confess only for oneself, rather one has to beg forgiveness for all Jews who sin. As Rabbi Isaac Luria, 16th Century Kabbalist, wrote that confession is written in the plural "we have sinned" because all Israel is considered like one body and every person is a limb of that body. So we confess to all the sins of all the parts of our body.

Many of the sins listed relate to our misuse of speech and having the wrong type of thoughts or attitude towards G-d or others. Some have to do with more concrete mitzvos like Kashruth or Dealing Honestly in Business. All relate to us in way or another. Of course, one should not feel limited to confess only the list of sins printed in the Prayer Book; one should mention in the Viduy any specific sins which he or she may have committed.

Okay, so now we understand why we say Viduy on Yom Kippur. But why do we have to pound our chests while we're saying it? Is this some sort of punishment we're supposed to inflict upon ourselves as a sort of "penance" for our sins? (I remember one Yom Kippur when I was a young boy in Yeshiva and I saw this older boy pound himself so hard while reciting the Viduy, I thought he would knock himself out! Apparently, he felt that the harder you hit your chest, the more forgiveness you got!)

The Rabbis explain that since the heart is the seat of passion and desire, we strike the left side of the chest lightly with our fist as if to say that the heart led us astray and made us do what we did. So that when we recite the Viduy confession and pound our chests on Yom Kippur, we're not really hitting ourselves, but rather pointing to our hearts as the main party responsible for all the sins we've committed over the past year.

This needs further explanation. I mean, doesn't it sound like a cop-out? "It wasn't the real me, G-d! It's not my fault! My heart made me do it!" After all, isn't my heart a part of me? So what kind of justification is it to blame our actions on our hearts? How can we stand there before G-d on the holiest day of the year and make ridiculous excuses for our bad behaviors?

To answer this question, we need to explore the very basis of this thing we do on Yom Kippur called teshuvah. How does it work? A person sins, and then, through a process of remorse, commitment to change and verbal confession, he can retroactively wipe his slate clean as if he had never sinned? Does this make sense?

In Kabballah (the Jewish Mystical tradition) we are taught that the human soul has five levels, of which the lower three are connected to our physical realities and are "situated" in different parts of the body. At the core of our being we have our neshamah - represented by the brain - which is always connected to God, to an extent that it is difficult to tell where the divine presence ends and the person begins. This neshamah is connected to our ruach, our spiritual/emotional selves - represented by the heart - which in turn is connected to our nefesh - represented by the liver - the "life force" that burns within us and which is the engine that drives us.

The point of life is self-definition. Were we aware of ourselves on the level of neshamah, and were we conscious of our connection to God, the point of our lives would be quite clear to us. We wouldn't be at all confused as to why we exist and what we are supposed to do with our lives. But the point of life is to live with free will, and therefore such soul-consciousness is ordinarily withheld. Instead, we are torn between our raging life force, our nefesh, and the awareness of our spirituality, our ruach, and this conflict creates within us confusion as to who and what we are. This confusion is the source of our transgressions, and is the dilemma that forms the backdrop against which we exercise our free will.

The Kabbalists teach us a beautiful thing. They explain that even when we do choose to sin with our ruach/heart, allowing our nefesh/liver to take control of ourselves instead of being led by our neshamah/brain, the neshamah itself remains pure and is never tainted by our negative actions and behaviors (there are exceptions, of course, in the rare case of truly evil people whose inner core does become totally corrupted).

As we say in the Shacharis (Morning) prayers every day, "Elokai, Neshamah shenasata bi, tehorah hee - My G-d, the Neshamah (Soul) that you placed inside me is pure" The soul is pure, even today after I sinned, because there is a part of me which remains uncorrupted by sin, and which, given the choice, would never have made the wrong decision. So that when we sin, we are, in a sense, allowing the lower parts of our soul to "hijack" our neshamah - but we are never defined by our sins, as the core of our soul always remains pure and holy. [see Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein of Lublin in Takanas Hashavin 2:2]

With this insight we can begin to understand how teshuvah really works. The Mahara"l writes in his commentary to Tractate Avodah Zarah 17a that the root of the word teshuvah is shav, which is comprised of the two Hebrew letters shin and beis. He explains that according to Kabballah, the entirety of each person's lifetime can be expressed through the letters of the Hebrew Alef-Beis (alphabet), with the first letter alef representing the beginning of life, and the last letter tuff representing the end of life (...after all, when a person dies, it's "tuff"!)

We were all created with a pure, unsullied neshamah to serve as our "spiritual guide" in life, much like the letter alef which is also a Hebrew word meaning "teacher", "guide" or "general". We then start to "build" ourselves and the world around us, trying to actualize our potential through the choices we make, just as the letter beis comes from the Hebrew words bayis, house, and binyan, building.

But sometimes we mess up and choose the wrong things, allowing our nefesh to temporarily seize control of our neshamah. Not to worry, though. As long as we have not reached the tuff of our lives, i.e. we haven't died yet, we can still do teshuvah. We can be "shav" - meaning that we can go from the shin (the letter just before tuff) all the way back to the beis and start building ourselves up again.

And the reason why this teshuvah is even possible, explains the Mahara"l, is only because we still have that alef before the beis - we still have our pure and untainted neshamah intact to which to return. As long as we realize that the sins that we commit do not define our essence, that the inner core of our being can never be corrupted no matter what our heart and the other parts of our body would have us do - then we can use this inner knowledge to retroactively reveal that we - our neshamah, our true essence - never committed the sin in the first place, but was hijacked by our hearts. We can then drive out the hijacker and restore control to the neshamah, thus assuring that we don't make the same mistakes again.

Now we can better understand the power of our "Kong-esque" chest-beating on Yom Kippur. It is not some act of self-flagellation done in order to atone for our sins. Rather, it is an act which calls to mind the root cause of our sins, and which allows for the very existence of teshuvah. We strike our chest next to the heart as if to say, "My heart led me astray - I let it take control of my body - but the real me never did nor would ever do such a thing - and I will make sure that my neshamah stays in control of me at all times".

Let us remember this powerful and empowering lesson as we recite the Viduy confession this Yom Kippur in the synagogue. And through our sincere teshuvah, putting our neshamah back in the driver's seat where it belongs, may we all merit to be sealed in the Book of Life for another year of happiness, health and meaningful living.


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