On the upcoming Day of Atonement we will confess our sins. We will recite a veritable litany of transgressions. Ahshmanu, bagadnu, debarnu-dofee. We have sinned. We have transgressed. We have gone astray. The prayer book calls it a catalogue of woe.
Though some may disagree, I find great meaning and, yes, even wisdom in this disheartening enumeration of deeds done and undone. For what is this catalogue of our failings if not the negative image, the picture in reverse, of how we are expected to lead our lives? Yes, we confess indifference, dishonesty, irresponsibility. Which is only to say that we are commanded to be honest, responsible and compassionately concerned with the needs of others.
But why paint the picture in such dark tones? Why not highlight the positive and our capacity for elevated achievement? Would it not be better to appeal to our higher instincts? The answer to that question is no.
Our sages wrote of yetser, a uniquely primal human energy, and they spoke of two urges, two drives within us. One, the yetser tov is our good inclination and the other the evil inclination, the yetser hara. And the rabbis added that the evil inclination is 13 years older than the good. In other words, the evil inclination is present virtually from birth. The good inclination appears much later.
The problem is that the impulse to give in to the yetser hara is strong. The good news is that we are capable and often do overcome that impulse. The best news is that even after giving in to the yetser hara, we are capable of growth and change, and when we do our tradition calls that tshuvah, repentance, return. This Sabbath is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return.
Atonement and return, however, are premised on our ability to recognize right and wrong and to see where and how we have gone astray. That is why the Day of Atonement provides us with a catalogue of wrongdoings and highlights all we have failed to be.
Our sages teach that the greatest weapon against the evil impulse is Torah. Understand Torah here as a moral compass that details an order of life that must not be violated. There are deeds that must not be done. The listing of those deeds makes up the particulars of our Yom Kippur confessional.
Some years ago there was a boxing match in New York City. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman was in attendance, and that night all hell broke loose in the arena. The fighters, their managers, even spectators in the stands started fighting with one another. It took 150 policemen to bring the situation under control, That night George Forman played an important part in helping to restore order. He stood in the ring, a tall powerful imposing presence, and when someone would start to do something destructive, Forman would just look at them and calmly say, “You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to do that.”
A world with Torah has a guiding light, a message played over and over that says with respect to certain things, “You don’t want to do that.” And if you do that you are supposed to feel guilt and remorse and even shame. That is why our confessional is framed in the negative. Certain things are unacceptable, and if you have done these things you are in need repentance, forgiveness and return. A world with Torah is a world in which when we have violated the moral law we know it.
The great tragedy of our times is that so many have denied the distinction between good and evil. When all virtue is relative so is all vice. But Yom Kippur comes to tell us that there are things we must not do. The principles are simple. Applying them can be hard.
At this season, we are called to apply the principles to our lives because the principles are right, and never to abandon the principles just because the struggle is hard.
Why? Because you and I have the capacity to do great good and great harm. Each of us continues to be a battleground between the yetser tov and the yetser harah. To abandon our principles, our moral compass is to surrender to the evil inclination, and I’m here to tell you, “You don’t want to do that.”
g’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be sealed for blessing the Book of Life.