“For the sin we committed before You by desecrating the Divine Name.”
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is a mandate. We are obligated to be holy but without necessarily understanding what holiness demands of us. The German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869–1937) tried to analyze the component parts of the sacred in his book The Idea of the Holy, but Otto’s language is dense and opaque.1Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). Holiness, Otto believed, is a mystery, both terrifying and fascinating. He believed that holiness is a non-rational and non-sensory experience that he termed “numinous,” referring to its unknowable quality. As interesting and influential as Otto’s writing is, the book offers little practical guidance on what it could mean to live the lofty and ethereal demands of this call from Leviticus.
As we become more attuned to the sacredness of each day of the ten days of repentance, we confess when we have fallen short of this desideratum. Further on in Leviticus, sanctifying God and profaning God live right next to each other: “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I the Lord who sanctify you” (22:32). The verse presents what looks like a causal relationship. If I do not profane, then I sanctify. But holiness does not strike us as a neutral state that demands no active striving. We wonder what it means to desecrate God’s name just as we try to understand what it means to make it holy in our act of vidui, confession. Is desecration a conscious act of minimizing God’s presence in our lives or even profaning it, or is it simply ignoring the sacred, pretending that transcendence is not relevant to us? A midrash on the book of Numbers hints at the second:
Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Presence.2Numbers Rabba 12:4, as translated by Lawrence Kushner in Eyes Remade for Wonder (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1998), 17.
There are portals to holiness everywhere, but we often walk in the world as if we have no map to them, as if they do not exist. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation of this midrash prods us to ask if we really strive for holiness on this day and every day after it:
You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You are already there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time. “There is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing that does not have its place” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:3).3Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder, 18.
As we move up the ladder of holiness on Yom Kippur, we realize that we have scaled the heights to arrive at this entrance but feel lower than ever before. We cannot access a way in to God. We gravitate between intimacy and distance. One minute we are close to imbuing everything we do with transcendence and the next we feel all of our inadequacies rising, filling us with dread and humility.
Our prayer moments parallel this experience, taking us up and down with their ascents and descents, mirroring this emotional rise and fall with uncanny unpredictability. We praise God’s name and God’s capacity for mercy, elevating us and giving us the promise to reach out and bridge the chasm. Then suddenly our prayers turn precipitously to human beings and throw us into existential crisis:
Man, his beginning is from dust and ends in dust; risking his life, he gets his bread. He is like a potsherd that cracks, like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, like the cloud that vanishes, like the wind that blows, like the dust that flies, and like a fleeting dream…(Unetaneh Tokef prayer)
The impermanence of our condition renders our grasp for the sacred an anomaly. We are here and then we will go, sometimes without notice. We have the same ephemeral quality as shadows, dust, and dreams. We cannot achieve the sacred; we are as breakable as clay. And again, as we immerse ourselves in these doubts and anxieties, the prayer mood shifts again: “But You are the King, the Almighty, the living and the everlasting God.” Our frailty is contrasted to God’s stability, and we find ourselves once again on terra firma. We will hold on tightly to the Rock and gain strength from God’s presence.
To be holy in Hebrew is to consecrate or separate something so that it achieves distinction. We step out of our this-worldly experience and into another, one which exudes mystery and strangeness. When Moses experienced revelation at the burning bush, God told him to remove his shoes, to take off his layer of this-worldliness so that he could enter another universe of discourse. He had to take off that which separated him from the ground to understand that he was not in a place ruled by expected norms: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). When Moses was called he answered, “Hineni.” I am in the moment. I am fully present. I have answered the call to holiness. Only in that state will the impossible become possible.
We are standing right now, at this moment in time, on the brink of infinite possibility. We stand here as individuals ready for change, enveloped and carried by the love of community. There are no divisions. There are no distractions. As we enter this, the holiest day of the year, we are saying with the setting of the sun that we have let go of the insistence that all is impossible, all the thoughts and intentions and motivations that tell us we can never change. For the next twenty-five hours, we will separate ourselves from this world in order to experience another world where all change is possible. The doors to possibility are opening. They are waiting for us to say hineni: I am fully present here, and I can achieve the impossible.
But what if you are not ready to say hineni to the call of holiness as Moses did? What if you do not believe that people can really change or that the portals into transcendence are really accessible? The possibility of teshuva has been argued for millennia. You are not alone.
We begin with the argument for impossibility. Teshuva undoubtedly is an impossible idea. It asks us to believe without question that people can change. This represents an enormous leap of faith for most. There are people who can believe in an intangible God, but the same individuals cannot believe that they can change themselves. Better yet, there are those who believe that they can change but that no one else can: “He’ll always be the same.” “Once an addict, always an addict.” “She always does that.”
And then we turn to the ultimate story of the impossibility of teshuva. It is told in any number of places, from passages in the Talmud to Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf.4Milton Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf (Springfield, nj: Behrman House, 1996). In Ĥagiga 15a, we find one of the Talmud’s most colorful characters: Elisha ben Abuya, the grade A heretic of an ancient past whose name was changed to “Aĥer” – or the Other – when he became a heretic. He was once a learned scholar but then became someone else, a person who had lost his faith. He witnessed a young boy obeying the command of his father to climb a tree and shoo away a mother bird to retrieve its eggs. The lad fulfilled two biblical commandments, the only two that promise long life, but toppled off the tree and died. In wonder, Elisha ben Abuya, who witnessed the fall, responded in disbelief: “Is this the Torah, and is this its reward?” and then dropped his faith.
Rabbi Meir, Aĥer’s most devoted student, studied Torah with him even when he left traditional Judaism. The Talmud tells us of a time when the two were traveling together on Shabbat. A lengthy Tosafot, medieval commentary, on this story uses one version to suggest that it was not on just any Shabbat but Shabbat and Yom Kippur at the same time. It was the second half of the first century on a day of holiness with the added bonus of being even more holy than usual. Rabbi Meir was walking and learning from Aĥer, who was riding a horse on the Shabbat of Yom Kippur, transgressing a well-known prohibition. The scene itself seems unimaginable. They reached the teĥum Shabbat, the invisible boundary beyond which carrying is no longer permitted, and Aĥer told Rabbi Meir to go back. He did not want to be responsible for the violations of his student, whose faith remained intact. Rabbi Meir, using the notion of this boundary as a metaphor for change, said to his revered teacher, the heretic, “You also turn back.” The words were few but loaded. Turn away from crossing this red line with me and repent. Come home. And Elisha uttered the ultimate statement of impossibility: “Haven’t I already told you that I heard from behind the curtain, ‘Return my wayward children, all, that is, except for Aĥer’?”
Aĥer used the perfect justification. He had, he claimed, heard God tell him directly (“behind the curtain” is a talmudic metaphor for veiled divine knowledge) that everyone has the possibility of changing but him. In this act of gross self-justification, he turned the very principles he once lived by upside down, believing that he was the only exception to the rule.
When we read this talmudic legend, we believe Aĥer. We take his words at face value. Perhaps some metaphysical voice did call and tell him that everyone has a chance to change, everyone but him. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, my own revered teacher, once explained that Aĥer’s convincing himself that everyone could change but him was an act of great denial. If everyone has the capacity to be different, then there are no exceptions to the rule. It cannot be possible for everyone but impossible for him. Aĥer’s denial was so profound that he convinced himself and tried to convince Rabbi Meir that God Himself would reject Aĥer’s repentance.
Someone who already made enormous changes in his own life should have been the first to understand that change is always possible. But for him, change was only in one direction. Aĥer may have spoken about himself in the third person in this passage in order to distance himself from the message. Had he used his own given name, perhaps he would never have had the gumption to make such a statement, one that flew in the face of everything he knew about his God, his former faith, and his understanding of teshuva. Elisha separated some part of himself from what he knew to be a deep truth and spoke in the name of a God he rejected, falsifying God’s word and God’s promise. He convinced himself that change is impossible.
In a similar vein, the Jerusalem Talmud records an odd conversation about the possibility of change in contrast to Aĥer’s limited view. The question the Talmud presents is simple: What is a sinner’s punishment? Piecing together and then weaving verses liberally for answers, a common stylistic feature of aggada (rabbinic legends), the question is answered by wisdom, the prophet, the Torah, and God:
Wisdom was asked, “What should be the punishment for the sinner?” She answered, “Let evil pursue the sinner.”
Prophecy was asked, “What should be the punishment for the sinner?” She answered, “The soul that sins shall perish.”
The Torah was asked, “What should be the punishment for the sinner?” She answered, “Let him bring a sacrifice, and be atoned for.”
The Holy One, Blessed be He, was asked, “What should be the punishment for the sinner?” He answered, “Let the sinner repent, and he will find atonement.”5Yalkut Shimoni, Psalm 25.
Wisdom here uses the voice of common sense. Common sense understands that when a person sins, he or she will suffer consequences. Sin will become its own punishment because an individual will have to live with the fact of sin in his or her life. Sin also promotes more sin, with its tumble-down effect captured in the aphorism: “Sin generates sin” in Ethics of the Fathers (4:2).
Prophecy takes a larger emotional view of sin’s impact. Each sin can be eliminated through punishment or recompense but, in the aggregate, sin has a corrosive effect. It wears us down. It changes us. It rusts our commitments.
The Torah takes a legal view and looks at what is technically demanded of us when we commit particular sins. We have to then make sacrifices so that God will grant atonement. If you bring a sacrifice the impact of sin is voided. In each instance an act must be done to eliminate the after-effects of sin.
The dichotomy between the prophet’s response and the Torah’s response is beautifully played out in an observation Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik makes in On Repentance. Does teshuva imply some level of continuity of the past or the cutting off of the past? When the prophet speaks of the corrosion of the soul, he understands that the soul is the same soul, layered now with the imprint of sin. The Torah’s understanding is that a sacrifice nullifies the past; it is as if the sin had never been committed.
The question whether repentance implies continuity or severance, whether it sustains the past or utterly nullifies it, depends upon the nature of the repentance. There is repentance which does allow for continuity and which accords recognition to the past, and there is also repentance whose goal is the utter annihilation of the evil in the soul of man. Certain situations leave no choice but for the annihilation of evil and for completely uprooting it.6Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, On Repentance (Jerusalem: Oroth Publishing House, 1980), 273.
The punishment mentioned in the question is not really punishment at all. What the Talmud is searching for is a deeper understanding of the consequence of sin. Sin leads to more sin. Sin weakens our resistance and corrupts. Sin is finite and transactional. It can be totally removed with the proper payment. Every one of these other lodestones of Jewish life teaches that when we transgress there is a cost attached.
Rabbi Simha Bunim, the Hasidic sage, once asked his students how they could tell when a sin had been pardoned in an age without prophets. His students struggled to come up with an answer but none satisfied the rebbe. “We can tell,” he responded, “by the fact that we no longer commit that sin.”7Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), 253.
Into this lively discussion comes the last and most authoritative voice: God’s. God offers a response far and away the most conceptual and difficult to grasp. A sinner must repent. Ultimately that is all that is required. God defies the limitations of the other positions and says, “Just change.” No punishment, no rusting of the soul, no sacrifice will mean more to the future of the individual than the capacity and willingness to change. When that is present, God accepts repentance wholesale.
At its very core, this piece of aggada assumes that teshuva defies common sense, intellectual reasoning, legal manipulation, and even prophetic wisdom – for how can one undo what was? Quite simply. Teshuva is a divine gift. It makes the impossible possible. Finally, a cryptic piece of Talmud now becomes somewhat clearer:
Seven things were created before the world was created…. The Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah…. Repentance, for it is written, “Before the mountains were brought forth” (Psalms 90:2).8Pesaĥim 54a.
“Before the mountains were brought forth” implies that there were places and concepts created before the world was created because they defy rationality; they represent something that could not belong to a world governed by natural law. Teshuva defies reason. But, nevertheless, it exists.
The moment you shift from the impossible to the possible, you create the possibility of doing that which seems impossible. And we, as Jews, are tied into an historic nation that has defied all odds and every rational force against it. We are the people of impossibility. David Ben-Gurion said in considering the impossibility of the State of Israel, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” Our national anthem, Hatikva, is about a hope unseen and unimaginable. And what is teshuva, after all, but the most personal of miracles, the miracle of accepting and shaping a new self?
The German psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) once wrote: “If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.” Lewin escaped World War II by moving to the United States in the early 1930s, and after visiting professorships in a number of universities, directed the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. He achieved fame because he believed that “human behavior is the function of both the person and the environment.” In other words, human behavior is related to both personal characteristics and the social situations in which we find ourselves. This may not seem new to us, but it was radical when he introduced it. Lewin’s research also implied that change is imminently possible. Adaptation, evolution, adjustment: these are all words that imply a new configuration to an already existing model of behavior. Tweaking something also changes it. Radical transformation is not always necessary or desirable; it can make teshuva seem harder than it has to be. Lewin understood that if you want to get to know someone or something, you need to change it. That process will bring forth resistance, curiosity, rigidity, or willingness. Change is stubborn, but it happens.
John Kotter, in The Heart of Change, writes: “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”9John Kotter, The Heart of Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 1. In other words, the heart of change is in the emotions; it is not about the pros and cons of any given decision. It transcends that. When it comes to teshuva, we may be trying to influence one side of the brain that resists us and makes it seem that repentance is out of bounds, when another side of our brain might be more receptive.
In Ezekiel, God tells us that He will help us with the daunting task of becoming holy. He will sprinkle cleansing waters upon us, removing the aura of sin that trails us at times: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh, and I will put My spirit into you” (36:25–26). We walk into the last prayers of the day, Ne’ila, almost cleansed of sin, with a new heart and a new spirit. Holiness is very close to us right now.
Rabbi Kook wrote poetry and, just as he wrote that repentance is a great theme for poets and painters, his poem “Remove My Shame” moves us from sin to holiness, from Ezekiel’s transgression to a new heart and a new spirit:
Remove my shame,
Lift my anxiety,
Absolve me of my sin
And enable me to pray before You
With gladness of heart,
To pursue Your commandments and Your Torah
In the joy of holiness.
God obligates us to be holy not because it is a stretch for us that is aspirational but unachievable. He demands it of us because God believes we can become holy. We, too, must remove our sin and bask in the joy of holiness. It is within our grasp. In the aggada, God assured us of the power of change because deep down we may not believe in its possibility. God used the voice of ultimate persuasion because nothing short of the divine would convince us. All is possible. Holiness is within reach.
Opening the Door for Ne’ila
Repentance is sometimes the last door that we decide to walk through.
One year, I was at an airport between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and right near my gate, a man was talking on the phone loudly and gesticulating wildly. “I begged them to keep the door open. I pleaded. You don’t understand. They shut the doors. They just wouldn’t let me on the flight.” Maybe he was talking to his boss or a client. Probably his wife. As he continued to talk, he got more flustered and made more excuses for being late. But the louder he got, the clearer it was that it was his fault. He just wasn’t prepared. He got there late, and the doors were already shut.
The doors may be shut, but a door is only a portal. The decision to walk through the door is our own. This transition is magnificently captured by the late poet Adrienne Rich in “Prospective Immigrants Please Note”:
Either you will go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
It is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.
The gates of heaven are only a door. There is no handbook and no map. There is no promise or guarantee. It is only a door. The door is not a promise, but it is an invitation to launch an adventure and a journey whose destination involves change. We are living in a broken world, and the key to that world is in the door of compassion, sha’ar haraĥamim, and the door of repentance, sha’ar hateshuva. They remain open even when other doors are closing.
Lamentations Rabba, a collection of midrashim on the book of Lamentations, is the source that tells us that the gates of repentance are always open even if the gates of prayer are about to close (3:44). Some doors shut, others stay open. In Berakhot, we find another talmudic basis for the Ne’ila service.
Rabbi Elazar said: From the day the Temple was destroyed, the heavenly gates of prayer were locked, as it says: “Though I would cry and plead, He shut out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). But even though the gates of prayer have been locked, the gates of tears have not been locked, as it is stated, “Hear my prayer, God. Give ear to my cry. To my tears do not be silent” (Psalms 39:13).10Berakhot 32b.
We ask not that God see our tears but that God not be silent to our tears. We want God to be engaged in our sorrow, to show compassion when we are desperate, and we stand in front of a door that seems impossible to unlock.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book Halakhic Man recalls a moment when he stood with his father in the synagogue courtyard right before Ne’ila. It was, in his words, a “fresh, clear day, one of the fine, almost delicate days of summer’s end, filled with sunshine and light” that was fast turning into night. His father turned to him and said, “This sunset differs from the ordinary sunsets, for with it forgiveness is bestowed upon us for our sins.” As the day changed to night, Rabbi Moses, his father, saw in it the transformation of a soul. At that moment, Rabbi Soloveitchik meditated on what was happening outside with what was happening inside:
Yom Kippur and the forgiveness of sins merged and blended here with the splendor and beauty of the world and with the hidden lawfulness of the order of creation. The whole was transformed into one living, holy, cosmic phenomenon.11Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1984), 38.
Most of us are in the synagogue as the sun is setting. The fluorescent lighting removes us from the experience of sunset during Ne’ila. But if we can look out a window or even step outside for a few minutes before our final prayers begin, we can see the sky carrying the lesson of transformation that we have been trying hard to achieve inside. Everything is turning. Darkness is approaching. The day is ending. We are still alive. We will make it through the fast. We will try again. The possibility of change never leaves us. We think of who we were when we stepped into Kol Nidrei and who we are as Ne’ila is closing. We are not the same.
We don’t have much time left. In a midrash, a bat kol (heavenly voice) came down from the sky to tell Moses that he had only three hours left to live. Moses continued to debate God. Let me into the land of Israel. He listed all of his merits. He begged. He pleaded. And then the bat kol returned, “Moses, you have only one hour left.” And Moses continued to debate God and complain about his fate. And then the bat kol came down and said, “Moses, you have only fifteen minutes left.”
Squandering the last hours justifying ourselves, we lose the time we thought we had. How are we going to spend the next fifteen minutes? The next half hour? The next hour? The next week? We can beg and plead and make excuses. We can use all of our energy to argue or complain. Or we can use that energy to radiate love, to get a little closer to the people we care about, to bring God into our lives, to make someone else’s life a little better. And we can do all this before the gates close.
• Think of a place or a ritual that is exceptionally holy to you and that brings out your most transcendent self. How can you use it to inspire greater holiness in your life?
• Think about the activities you engage in and the time you spend nurturing your physical self through exercise, recreation, or rest. Reduce it to an approximate number of hours a week. Now think about activities or behavior you engage in that have a holy quality. Only include rituals like prayer or study if they contribute to your awareness or experience of holiness, not if they are done as rote or obligatory undertakings. Compare your findings. What did you learn about yourself?
• Imagine a door that stands in front of you that is getting in the way of your success. Name a problem and visualize it as that door. Stand squarely in front of it. What would it take to open the door? That door is your gate of repentance. It is your Ne’ila. Muster the strength to go through it. When you get to the other side, you will realize that it was just a door, a mere threshold into the self. You can cross the threshold.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 10:2–3
One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it. This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me,” for his service was only motivated by love. God commanded us [to seek] this rung [of service] as conveyed by Moses as [Deuteronomy 6:5] states: “Love God, your Lord.” When a man will love God in the proper manner, he will immediately perform all of the mitzvot motivated by love.
What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick.
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, “Author’s Introduction”
Love of God…if we do not make an effort to implant it in our hearts, utilizing all of the means which direct us towards it, how will it exist within us? When will it enter into our soul’s intimacy and ardor towards the Blessed One and towards His Torah if we do not give heart to His greatness and majesty which engender this intimacy in our hearts?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 13:11
Great and sublime is the happiness of repentance. The consuming fire of sin’s pain in itself refines, resulting in a superior and radiant purification of character, till the great wealth of repentance to be found in the treasure of life develops and unfolds before him. Humans continue to ascend through repentance, through its bitterness and its pleasantness, through its sorrow and its joy; nothing refines and purifies man, truly uplifting him to the level of man, as does the profound contemplation of repentance, “In the place where the penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand” (Berakhot 34a).
Text questions to think about while studying:
• Why is repentance from love superior to repentance from fear?
• What is the connection between holiness and teshuva?
• How can we achieve greater intimacy with God through teshuva?