BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT //

Rachel LaVictoire

Rachel LaVictoire

I have always seen Yom Kippur as one of the most frightening days of the year. Even at a young age, the words of the Unetanah Tokef stood out to me:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his day and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast …”

But here we are, at the start of a new year and once again approaching the fearsome holiday. A year has passed since the last Yom Kippur, 355 days during which we have all done wrong.

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We disrespected our parents and we gossiped; we lost our temper at work and didn’t use our time wisely; we yelled at a sibling, and we convinced our self that all of our lies were white.

And though we apologized to our parents, bosses, and friends, it’s now time to make amends with G-d. According to the Talmud, it’s now, during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that the prophet Isaiah was referring to when he instructed the Israelites:

“Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near. The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord, Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our G-d, for He will freely pardon.”

G-d is here and listening, waiting for each of us to atone for our sins before Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment. Isaiah’s words seem soothing and many of our prayers make it seem simple – if you repent, you will be forgiven, no questions asked.

These days, however, are still frightening. The fear isn’t about whether or not we’ll be forgiven; the fear is in the act of repenting. We’re given these Ten Days of Repentance for the sole purpose of introspection: what have I done wrong? Who was hurt by my mistakes? Why did I do those things?

As we all know, though, it’s not particularly enjoyable to sit down and think about everything you’ve done wrong. It’s difficult; it’s upsetting; and it’s exhausting.

Some mistakes you can think of quickly, but the truth is that so many of them have been shoved into a little box in the corner of our brain; a box we locked shut a long time ago.

We don’t want to remember all of these mistakes, and we certainly don’t want to own up to them – it’s shameful.

Or so we thought. But here’s the truth: those who sin and atone for their sins are said to have a stronger connection with G-d than those who are simply righteous. In fact, our sages gave the title Baal Teshuvah, literally meaning “master of repentance,” to those people who have sinned and returned to G-d. The Mishneh Torah explains:

“A Baal-Teshuvah should not consider himself distant from the level of the righteous because of the sins and transgressions that he committed … Our sages declared, ‘In the place where the Baalei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not to stand.’ The level of Baalei Teshuvah transcends the level of those who never sinned at all, for they overcome their evil inclination more.”

It’s an interesting concept, really, and it certainly does relieve some of the stress of repentance, but the struggle then is becoming a Baal-Teshuvah, and mastering repentance.

On Rosh Hashanah, we’re encouraged to go to a Tashlich service and metaphorically toss our sins into a flowing body of water and feel this great sense of relief as we watch them float off into the distance. But honestly I can’t say I’ve ever felt fully cleansed of my sins afterwards.

And maybe that’s because I wasn’t doing it right.

Jewish law says there are two key factors in Teshuvah: The penitent must resolve in his heart not to repeat the sin, and he must regret his mistake. The second, while seemingly obvious, may be the more difficult.

When we sit down to think of our mistakes, we may think about them in generalities: I mistreated my parents this year, instead of, I often didn’t listen to my parents when they told me to do things.

When we say, “I mistreated my parents,” during Teshuvah, it’s emotionless – we say it because we know it probably happened and if it did happen, we know it’s wrong. When we atone for specifics, we think about what we’ve done and are automatically reminded to make a change in the future.

Of course, I can’t tell each person how to repent, it’s a personal endeavor. I can simply reiterate the importance of actually doing it.

We still have time – Yom Kippur is approaching, but it’s not here quite yet. It’s not about being inscribed in the Book of Life versus the Book of Death. It’s just about taking time to focus on yourself and create a clean slate for the new year.

About the writer

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.

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