The “one day” of the year is now upon us. Yom Kippur carries with it a
fascination for all concerned. The concept of forgiveness, that
transgressions can be forgiven, that words can be retracted and that actions
and commitments can somehow be annulled is a most radical one. For after
all, in our real world of mundane life we remember yet every slight and
insult hurled against us even decades later. We may be able to move on from
that experience but we remember it.
But Yom Kippur creates a situation that spiritually erases the experience.
It allows for a clean slate unfettered by past transgressions and failures.
This makes Yom Kippur the greatest gift that Heaven can provide for us while
we are alive. This concept of forgiveness and starting again is in turn one
of the greatest of the many gifts that Judaism has granted to humankind but,
there are few gifts in life that do not also carry with it obligations and
Forgiveness on Yom Kippur comes with the requirement of introspection and
resolve to do better and not to continue to repeat the errors of the past.
In the listing of the sins that we recite in the Yom Kippur prayers emphasis
is placed upon the words that we have uttered, the legs that carried us to
transgression and the hands that are usually the culprit in our actual sinning.
The listing of these body parts, so to speak, is not done unintentionally or
merely poetically or metaphorically. They describe for us the areas of our
lives that demand constant improvement and care. As such they deserve a
modicum of study and understanding.
Life and death depend on one’s speech. It is difficult many times to be
truly careful in speaking to others or most often about others. We often
truly believe that talk is cheap. Yet talk can be very damaging. The rabbis
stated that there are three victims of bad speech or even of careless
speech. They are the speaker, the listener and the person that that was the
subject of the remark or the speech.
Bad speech is thus a serial killer, a multiple murderer. We all misspeak at
times, most of the time unintentionally, but nevertheless consequences
follow. As one whose profession is to constantly speak and teach I am well
aware of how easily statements can be made that are not completely accurate
and many times not wise at all. I truly regret hose misspoken words.
That is the hazard of my profession but it is a hazard for all of us as
well. Care in speaking is a commitment that should be at the top of our list
of improvements that we pledge to ourselves on Yom Kippur. And in many
respects it is probably the most difficult commitment to achieve. We are
accustomed to speaking from our infancy so we do so almost out of rote. I
once saw a sign that said: “Do not engage mouth unless brain is in gear.”
Truer words were never written or expressed.
Our legs move quickly when we are enthusiastic about where we are heading.
King David said about himself that his legs almost automatically took him to
the house of Torah prayer and study. Our legs carry us where we really want
to go to. Thus they are a true measure of our goals and ambitions. They tell
us what is important in our lives and what we truly value and prioritize.
Our legs and where they carry us do not allow ourselves to be fooled by
pious platitudes that we may sometimes utter.
There are times that we go places where we should not attend and participate
in activities that are improper. Our legs brought us there and thus they
revealed to us our true intent and uncovered weaknesses that we prefer to
deny exist within us. How careful and measured our steps in life must be!
Yom Kippur also teaches us to guard our hands from doing wrongs. In haste
and frustration we strike out at those that we feel have harmed or insulted
us. The arch enemies of Moshe and the prototypes of evil men in the Torah,
Datan and Aviram, are introduced to us in the Torah as two people striking
each other. Unfortunately we live in a climate of violence, from the school
yard, to the parking lot, to everyday life and domestic abuse. Basically Yom
Kippur teaches us to maintain silence except where it is necessary to speak,
walk slowly and in the right direction and to keep our hands to ourselves in
almost all life circumstances.
Gmar chatima tova and shana tova,
Rabbi Berel Wein