The year was 1882 and Oscar Wilde was coming to the United States. The customs official routinely inquired if he had anything to declare. His reply: “Only my genius.” Years later as he sat in prison and reflected on a squandered life, Mr. Wilde mused, “I have been a spendthrift of my genius…I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character.”
One of the most striking differences between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur revolves around attention to detail. On Rosh Hashanah we grapple with life’s ultimate issues: Who am I? Where do I want my life to go and what is the legacy I hope to leave? Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a day on which attention to detail reigns supreme. Throughout the sections of the service that deal with vidduy—confession—(i.e., Ashamnu and Al-chet) you will find a list of sixty-seven items for which to ask forgiveness. According to the classic commentators, these sixty-seven items are in fact subject headings for even broader categories that together number many hundreds of actions for which we can ask forgiveness. It’s a busy day, to say the least.
The following are two examples from the vidduy:
- Ashamnu / We Have Become Culpable: We have acted in ways that deaden our sense of spirituality, we were driven for profit and thus transgressed God’s will, we hurt others out of self-centeredness, for our own pleasure we did what we knew was wrong, etc.
- Al-Chet She-Chatanu Lefanecha B’emutz HaLev/ Hardheartedness: Refusal to admit that we can be wrong, general stubbornness, denying our shortcomings, lack of compassion for the sick and poor, unwillingness to accept advice, being tough on ourselves or others when compassion was appropriate, etc. To say that Yom Kippur is a day for introspection and reflection is true, but it is also an oversimplification. I would like to suggest that you try a little exercise now: Ask yourself, “How many choices have I been confronted with today?” Mind you, these must be moral choices, choices of import. Not significant life-altering choices, but those small choices that we often pass by, or through, with barely a notice. Here are some examples:
- Did you encounter anyone today—a spouse, a child or an acquaintance—whose mood could have been lifted simply by a warm smile or a moment of genuinely expressed concern?
If yes, then ask yourself: (a) what choice did I make at that moment, and (b) how would things have been different, for better or worse, had I chosen otherwise?
- How about your attitude in synagogue today? You can use this Yom Kippur as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and personal growth, or you can sit through another year silently bearing the burden of a rather cumbersome experience. Have you considered that choice yet?
- Did you have a chance to help someone today? Someone who could have managed without your help but who would have been grateful nonetheless? Think about how long you had to make that choice. Was it more than a fleeting moment that no one but you will ever know existed? In retrospect, how do you feel about the choice you made? Do you believe it had a lasting effect on you?
As I know you have realized, these examples are but a drop in the ocean. Everyday we are confronted with tens if not hundreds of little choices. Little, but not so little. Choices that can have either a positive or negative impact on ourselves or someone else.
There are times when we read or hear a concept, and though its meaning may be unclear, we have a sense that its profundity demands a closer look. Such a statement is the Torah’s assertion that man was created “in the image of God.” Its meaning is this: People, like God, have the capacity to choose. But more, that capacity defines our very essence. We are beings who choose.
This being so, it is no wonder that our days and our lives are little more than a continuous string of choices. Most of them small, some not. After all, how often do we choose a career, a spouse or whether or not to have children? These types of choices are few and far between, but there is a vast in-between, a life brimming with choices.
And thus we have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The forest and the trees. On Rosh Hashanah we confront the major issues, the general ebb and flow of our lives. On Yom Kippur we dwell on the minutiae. Some would say that Yom Kippur is but a microcosm of Jewish life. A guilt-ridden obsession with trivialities. In fact, Yom Kippur is an affirmation of the value of life, of each day and of every aspect of each day. That which we truly cherish is that which we carefully scrutinize. The more significant the whole, the more precious are its details.
Parents are concerned about every aspect of their children’s behavior. They know that how a child eats his cereal plus how he cares for his belongings, added to the way he relates to siblings and classmates, eventually adds up to the totality of that child’s character. If growth and human development are not to culminate in just learning to “eat nicely,” then true maturity will lie in taking the reins of the ongoing choices that shape our character.
The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a nation, is those hundreds and thousands of half-conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private.
Senator Dan Coats
The sages in the Talmud put it this way: “A person is not given the opportunity for greatness until he is tested in the small things.” Moses, the greatest leader in Jewish history, started his career as the shepherd of someone else’s sheep. The same is true for King David: first a shepherd, then a king. A future Moses or a King David is entrusted with the destiny of the Jewish people only if first he is able to tend a flock with integrity and compassion and take care that the sheep don’t wander off and eat a bit of grass from someone else’s field.
Take care. Take care of the small, almost invisible choices. Those precious, precious details of character and life.
In the final analysis there will always exist a symbiotic tension between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah beckons us to take a panoramic view of our lives, all the while paying scant attention to the nuance that lies therein. Yom Kippur is just the opposite—entirely nuance: the tree, the leaves, and the nourishing roots, with barely a thought to the great forest in which we stand.
Only the magnificence of the space shuttle and the unencumbered dreams out of which it grew could make man an ever-frequent visitor to space. Yet all it takes is one overlooked O-ring—a detail—to bring our dreams crashing down to earth. Or, as someone once observed, “great symphonies begin with just one note.”
This article is an excerpt from “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit”. This book masterfully blends wisdom, humor and down-to-earth spirituality. It’s like having a knowledgeable friend sitting right next to you in the synagogue.