The Yom Kippur prayers perplex me. What if we didn’t do the aveira we apologize for, and what if know that we’re going to do it again?
Thanks for your question. The first part doesn’t really bother me too much for two reasons. The first reason is because it’s always possible that you did something you don’t even know about. Maybe you took something from a store thinking it was a free sample but you accidentally stole it. Maybe you said something rude in public and made a chillul Hashem. Maybe we excused ourselves from fulfilling our responsibilities thinking that we were unable to perform them when God knows that we were actually able. There are plenty of ways we could have erred and not even been aware of it.
For the other reason, think about the text we recite. In one place it’s “ashamnu, bagadnu…” (“We have sinned, we have acted treacherously…”) and in the other it’s “al cheit shechatanu…” (“For the sin that we have sinned…”). You’ll note that, like Shemoneh Esrei (in which we say things like “heal us,” “bless us,” etc.) the confession is in the plural. It’s a collective, communal prayer. Maybe you didn’t perform a particular misdeed but someone did. We don’t exist in a vacuum; we’re all just organs in one greater body and something that brings one of us down brings us all down.
I’d like to focus on the second half of your question: what if one knows that he’s going to continue performing the sin after Yom Kippur? This is a particularly good question in light of the fact that one of the things we confess is “For the sin we have committed before You through insincere confession,” which could render the act of confession itself sinful if performed insincerely! The trick, therefore, is to do so sincerely!
On Rosh Hashana, we focus a lot on our forefather Avraham’s relationship with his son Yitzchak but let’s take a look at his other son, Yishmael. After Sarah had Hagar and Yishmael expelled, Yishmael wasn’t doing so well. He was in danger of dying from thirst but God miraculously saved him with a well. Genesis 21:17 says:
“God heard the boy’s voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from Heaven, saying to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not fear because God has heard the boy’s voice in the place where he is.’”
The words “in the place where he is” cry out for explanation. In his commentary on this verse, Rashi cites the Talmud and the Midrash as follows:
“A person is judged according to his current deeds and not according to what he will do in the future (tractate Rosh Hashana 16b). God’s ministering angels accused Yishmael, saying, ‘Master of the Universe! You’re going to create a well to save one who will eventually kill Your children with thirst?’ God replied, ‘What is he now, righteous or wicked?’ The angels replied that he was currently righteous, to which God replied, ‘I will judge him according to his present deeds’ (Genesis Rabbah).” (Rashi goes on to cite the historic incident referred to in which Yishmael’s descendants killed Jews through thirst, which occurred following the exile by Nebuchadnezzar and is foretold in Isaiah 21:13-15.)
We see from here – and from the gemara cited – that a person is judged according to how he is at the moment, not according to what he will do in the future. If, at the time of reciting vidui (confession) on Yom Kippur, one intends to continue in the improper path, that would be a problem of insincere confession. But if one honestly intends to try changing his ways, he is judged as righteous. This does not preclude the possibility of backsliding – people are human after all – but it’s one’s intention at the time that makes the difference.
Contrast this with the ben sorer u’moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son. On Deuteronomy 21:18, Rashi cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin (72a-b) that he actually is judged according to what he’s destined to do. (This is also the case with one who breaks into a house to rob it.) In these cases, it’s fair to judge them according to their future deeds because they are already on those paths and making progress towards those goals. Yishmael, in his time of distress, was not yet on such a path and therefore judged according to how he was at the moment.
And that’s the secret. Yom Kippur does not demand perfection in the coming year, and failure to achieve perfection does not invalidate what we say on Yom Kippur. The question is what’s in our hearts. If we are sincerely interested in improving ourselves and changing our ways, then we will be judged as righteous. If we’re only interested in just getting through Yom Kippur so we can get back to our sinning – well, that’s another story.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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