As we approach the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we take a look back at the year that passed and “take stock” of our triumphs and failures. We ask ourselves, “Did I always do what was right? What mistakes have I made? How can I improve in the future?”
Of course, the answer is that we have all had successes and failures. Even the most righteous individual has failed to be perfect. This is why we have the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah – the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Although the term “Aseret Yemei Tshuvah” is not found in the Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah, commenting on Isaiah 55:6, implores us to “seek HaShem when he can be found – these are the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Our sages tell us that it’s during this period that the gates of heaven are open to our prayers.
The Rambam writes that although HaShem is always receptive to our pleas of repentance, they are most readily accepted during this time. He adds that every person should see himself as being half guilty and half innocent, and that every good deed and act of repentance tips the scales in one’s favour.
During the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah, we say Slichot every day in order to confess our sins and entreat HaShem to forgive us. The Slichot prayers themselves, written by paytanim (medieval Jewish poets), stir our emotions and arouse a sense of regret for our misdeeds. In Slicha 70, recited by Ashkenazim on the third day of the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah, we ask that HaShem “purify our thoughts from sin and fault, that we may be able to return to You without perversity or falsehood.” This is just one of many examples where we ask HaShem to atone for our sins, and direct our hearts and minds towards Him.
I recently heard a wonderful story from Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier of the Tiferes Bnei Torah’s website, theshmuz.com, that clearly illustrates our experiences each year during the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah. Rabbi Shafier was formerly a teacher in Rochester, NY. During his tenure, he routinely travelled with his family back and forth between Rochester and New York City.
One February day, when he and his family were making the return trip to Rochester along the New York State Throughway, a light snowfall began. The light snowfall soon turned into a raging blizzard, blanketing the road very quickly. Rabbi Shafier was driving the car and could barely see the road ahead of him. In the blink of an eye, he lost control of his car and was heading toward a tractor trailer travelling in the opposite direction. Both drivers swerved at the last moment and wound up in a ditch along the side of the road. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Rabbi Shafier quickly turned around to check on his family, only to find his young daughter fast asleep in her car seat. She had slept through the whole incident! Rabbi Shafier and the other occupants of the car had just had one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives, and his daughter slept through it all!
This is how we tend to experience the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah. HaShem judges the entire world, deciding our very future, and all too often, we “sleep” through the whole process.
It’s said that Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the mussar (ethics) movement, would fear the start of Elul so much, that he would faint during Birchat Hachodesh (the blessing of the new month said on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh). Here was a great individual who was always careful about every action he took and every word he spoke, and yet he found this time of the year to be so distressing that he fainted at the mere mention of its beginning! How much more so should we look at the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah as the time to re-examine our deeds and resolve to improve on those areas of our lives that need repair.
I wish you all a chativah v’chatimah tovah, and a happy and sweet new year.