One year a nice fellow asked me a very sincere and serious question a few days before Yom Kippur. He wanted to know what benefit there was to going through this exercise of seeming futility. Every year on Yom Kippur we beg forgiveness and we bang our chests with even genuine regret and then within a few days we’re back to the same business as if Yom Kippur never happened.
I told him that I hear the question loud and clear and I admire his self-honesty. I had a similar shock one year when Erev Yom Kippur I wrote out a long laundry list of missteps, violations, bad habits, and real faults to study and ask forgiveness about on Yom Kippur. As the services started a yellow piece of paper fell out of my Yom Kippur Machzor. I picked it up immediately. It occurred to me that I had written my list on a white legal pad. When I checked the date I realized that this paper was from last year and there were all the same things in almost the exact same order. I understood my friends question very well and I searched for an answer.
I remembered something that had happened that day on the subway. A tough looking youth with his baseball cap cocked to the side strutted onto the crowded train heading downtown. After the doors were secure and closed the little fellow pulled out a knife and did something I had never seen anybody do ever before. He etched onto the plexy-glass window of the subway doors his initials. I had seen miles of graffiti before but I had never seen it in action till then. I always thought it happened by itself like the way spider webs make themselves at night. Here we were in broad daylight, on public property unabashed defacement of public property. I was aghast. I stood right next to him and glared with righteous indignation. (Later when I recalled the story to my wife she reminded me in amazement, “Label he had a knife!”)
In one moment the tough guy looked up at me harshly, paused, and put his knife away slowly. Then to my amazement, the same rugged fellow, after holding his eyes towards the floor for a few seconds, licked his finger and then tried to erase the impression his knife had etched in moments earlier. His initial remained indelibly inscribed on the subway doors.
Something dramatic did change. It was the way I felt about him. Seconds ago I would if I could slam such an individual and then seeing his momentary shame and even feeble attempt to undo what he had done made me feel sorry for him.
The Talmud says that if someone feels a little guilt for a misdeed they can also be forgiven. The Chofetz Chaim was asked if his efforts to stamp out the scourge of malicious talk could ever be totally successful. He is reputed to have answered, “At least people won’t enjoy it anymore!”
Even if someone is stuck, the knife has blanched the glass and a scar remains, still there is value to admitting privately. King Solomon, the wisest of all men said, “One who conceals his mistakes will not succeed but one who admits and forsakes will be granted mercy.” (Mishle’ 28:14)
The question my friend asked helped me understand the incident on the subway and now I DON’T FEEL SO BAD WHEN I FEEL SO BAD.
We would like to thank Rabbi Label Lam of Foundations for Jewish Learning once again for his contribution this week.
You can find out more about participating in Foundations seminars by calling Foundations at 1-800-700-9577.