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A Little Goes a Long Way


Rabbi Dovid Horwitz



The Gemara describes how every Yom Kippur, eligible young women would go out into the fields where the young bachelors would be wandering in search of a bride. There was a palpable sense of joy and expectation that permeated the attitude of the Jewish people on that day. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, writes that there is no day as joyous and as great as Yom Kippur because it is a time when Hashem offers forgiveness and atonement to every Jewish penitent. Is this how we view Yom Kippur, as a day of joyous celebration? On the contrary, we tend to relate to Yom Kippur as a solemn day of fasting and affliction, prayer and supplication. It is hardly a time to think about shidduchim, let alone, to leave the prayers to actually go out and find a bride. What deep secrets were revealed to these young men and women that allowed them to have such a happy approach to Yom Kippur?

As is well known, although Hashem designated Yom Kippur as a day of atonement for the Jewish people, we can only tap into this amazing power of the day through the process of teshuvah. What exactly is teshuvah? Teshuvah is a mental and emotional process whereby the sinner ceases to continue in his wrongful ways turning back to Hashem. The poskim write that genuine teshuvah must rectify all aspects of transgression - the past, the present, and the future. This is accomplished by reciting viduy, the verbal confession accompanied by feelings of true remorse for one’s past deeds and a firm resolve to never do the sin again. For many of us this seems like such a tall order that it is even more difficult to understand than the joyous attitude expressed in the time of the gemara. In the words of the Rambam, one who confesses his sins, yet fails to commit in total sincerity to never doing the sin again, is likened to one who immerses in a mikvah, a ritual bath, while still holding the very source of impurity in hand. Although the individual is immersing in a body of water that has the power to cleanse, the person is unable to become purified because he or she is still connected to the source of impurity. Similar is one who has done partial teshuvah, sincerely confessing one’s sins but has been unable to firmly commit to never committing the same mistake again, Although this person has begun the process of self-cleansing, he or she is unable to attain complete purification as one is still holding on to one’s sins.

Interestingly, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explained that this “all or nothing” approach applies only to the teshuvah that one performs throughout the year, when there is no special power of repentance to draw upon. However, Yom Kippur has its own unique power of cleansing. As Rabbi Akiva said, Hashem (on Yom Kippur) is like a mikvah. But unlike a regular mikvah, which can only remove impurities under specific conditions, on Yom Kippur Hashem is a Mikvah of unlimited power. The exact extent of this power is actually the subject of a debate in the gemara. According to one approach mentioned there, the cleansing power of Yom Kippur is so great that it can even atone for our transgressions without the assistance of teshuvah at all. Although the accepted opinion in the gemara is that Yom Kippur only atones together with teshuvah, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that, in contrast to the rest of the year, on Yom Kippur, Hashem is far less exacting in the level of teshuvah that He requires. Whereas, during the year one’s teshuvah is only effective in relation to its completeness, on Yom Kippur even a partial teshuvah is sufficient to activate Yom Kippur’s special power of atonement. Of course, a person who merely pays lip- service to the process of teshuvah will not merit any atonement at all. However, one who sincerely repents to the best of one’s ability, although the person is unable to fulfill all three steps of teshuva, will be given atonement on Yom Kippur.

Hashem has given us a precious gift. G-d has given us a day that offers forgiveness even to those who fall short of the usual requirements of teshuvah. The young men and women of the gemara truly appreciated this gift, and with it, they saw great hope for their future. What better time to build the foundations of one’s future by finding a marriage partner than on Yom Kippur, the most glorious day of the year. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter is telling us that any step toward teshuvah, however small, carries with it the ability to transform a person’s Yom Kippur from a day of despair, to a day of light, hope, and purity. The key to repentance is sincerity. So don’t despair, for even a little goes a long way.



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