R’ Yisrael’s Small Acceptances

Reading through the letters of R’ Yisrael Salanter, it is remarkable to note the importance their great author affords the matter of making a “small acceptance” on Yom Kippur. In the words of R’ Yisrael, “there is nothing better … than ensuring, on the day of Yom Kippur, that one makes a small acceptance upon oneself for the future” (Letter  7; see also Letters 8, 10, 14).

Unfortunately, we have become somewhat accustomed to making acceptances, only to see their significance dissipate all too quickly in the days or weeks following Yom Kippur. After a number of years pass us by in similar fashion, there is concern that we become disheartened of the system. Can the “small acceptances” we make actually stay with us? Can the repentance they represent imply a long-term change, rather than merely a short-term awakening for the occasion of Yom Kippur?

Perhaps by finding a deeper layer of meaning in R’ Yisrael’s “small acceptances,” we will be able to empower them to make a true, lasting impact for the future.

Rather We Have Sinned

The order of viduy, the alphabetical confession so often upon our mouths on Yom Kippur and on days of selichos that precede it, is always introduced by the following short paragraph:

Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, may our prayer come before You, and so not ignore our supplication, for we are not so brazen and obstinate as to say before You, Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned—rather, we, and our forefathers, have sinned.

According to Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:8), this paragraph implies far more than just an introduction. In his opinion, the essence of vidui, the confession that the day of Yom Kippur obligates us in, is expressed in the words “rather, we have sinned.” It is striking, however, that in the common liturgy we include our fathers in the statement of confession: “we, and our forefathers, have sinned.” Granted, we must confess our own sins, but what point is there in confessing the sins of our fathers? They might have sinned, but how is that relevant to our own process of repentance?

A further point that requires scrutiny is the word aval, which we have translated “rather.” Although the word is commonplace in rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashim, where it is frequently used to mean “but,” it is seldom found in the Torah (in the entire five books of the Torah, the word occurs no more than twice). In the prayers service, moreover, the word is almost completely absent. Like every other paragraph of the prayer service, there is little doubt that the introductory paragraph to vidui (or the actual vidui, according to Rambam) could have circumvented the word aval. Its use in introducing the order of confession is certainly suggestive.

The secret, however, of the word aval, is found in the teachings of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. Commenting on the word aval uttered by Yosef’s brothers (Bereishis 42:19—”but we are guilty”), who were inspired by the difficulties overcoming them to rethink their position concerning the sale of Yosef to Egypt, Rabbi Hirsch writes that the word implies a reinterpretation. “[The word] aval always deconstructs a previous assumption, undermining that which was understood as simple and true.”

In the case of our viduy, the introductory aval should be understood in a similar vein. As we will see, the vidui service begs to reinterpret our past deeds.

Reinterpreting the Past

This concept can be derived from the following teaching of Chazal. Recalling the Yom Kippur miracle of the crimson thread, the prophet Yeshayahu predicts the future cleansing of sin: “Come, now, let us reason together, says Hashem. If your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become [white] as wool” (Yeshayahu 1:18).

The Gemara notes that the word scarlet, shani, is written with an extra letter nun, rendering shanin, years. The years of the world, explain Chazal, are closely related to the concept of teshuvah: “G-d told Israel, if your sins will be as these years, which are arranged and come to pass from the six days of creation until now, they will become white as snow” (Shabbos 89a).

The process described by the Gemara, by which personal sins become are transformed into the impersonal progression of years, is a radical reinterpretation. Teshuvah, the Gemara reveals, involves the detachment of sin from the sinner’s own person. Rather than a personal sin, an act of spiritual destruction wreaked by the misuse of human free will, sin, as it were, becomes an impersonal part of history, arranged from the six days of creation.

Such is the power of teshuvah. At the most sublime level, sins themselves are transformed into merits. Separated from the malicious, negligent, or lustful actions of man, the sin can become a part of the Divine will. Like the six days of creation, even sin becomes part of the plan. The scarlet of sin turns into the pure white of passing years.

This is perhaps the reason for which we mention the sins of our fathers together with our own misdeeds. As we employ the word aval, seeking to reinterpret past deeds, we mention even the past deeds of our fathers. Just as their deeds are now “history,” a history that brought us personally and nationally to where we stand, so our repentance begs to render our own sins an impersonal part of history.

Straightening Up on Yom Kippur

How is the process detailed above accomplished? How are we able to shed our sins, redefining them as a part of history rather than as a personal manifestation of evil? The answer to this question is by means of teshuvah. The process of teshuvah involves a definition of our own selves, a clarification of who we are. In the light of the new definition, our sins fall away, as it were of their own accord.

Dwelling on the different types of shofar used for the blasts of Rosh Hashanah and for that of the Yovel year, the Gemara explains (according to one opinion) a basic difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “On Rosh Hashanah, the more we bend our consciousness, the better; on Yom Kippur, the more we straighten up our consciousness, the better” (Rosh Hashanah 26b).

The difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a difference of approach. On Rosh Hashanah the entire focus of the day is on our role in establishing the Divine Kingdom upon earth. We define our basic purpose in life as loyal subjects of the King, expressing time and again our desire that Hashem should be revealed before all as the great King whose Kingdom knows no bounds.

On Yom Kippur, we place our focus not on our role and purpose in the world, but rather on who we are. After ten days of repentance, ten days on which Hashem is nearby (Rosh Hashanah 18a), we reach on Yom Kippur the zenith of closeness to Hashem. This closeness has a bearing on how we see our own selves. Rather than the physical persons of the year round, Yom Kippur, a day on which we abstain from food, drink, and other aspects of physicality, permits us to define ourselves in terms of the elevated soul—a soul derived from Hashem himself.

Insofar as we define ourselves in terms of our pure soul, we leave no room for the presence of sin. Insofar as we identify ourselves as an extension of a Divine essence, as “sons of Hashem, your G-d,” our sins fall away by definition. On Rosh Hashanah, we are bent over, servants of Hashem, loyal subjects of the King. On Yom Kippur we straighten up, our mental posture matching the white purity of the garments we wear. As Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 26b) writes, we “place our spirits in our palms,” separating it from the physical world where sin resides, and giving it back to Hashem.

Small Acceptances

As we redefine ourselves, as we rediscover the inner elevation of our pure souls, we are urged by R’ Yisrael Salanter to take on a “small acceptance,” to pledge to better our ways in some tangible act for the year to come.

The Ramban (Emunah U-bitachon chap. 19) famously writes that when a person is inspired to reach a spiritual high he should perform some physical act, manifesting his elevated feelings in tangible actions, and thereby ensuring that the spiritual elevation is anchored in the physical world. The same is true of the spiritual redefinition of Yom Kippur. After reaching a new high, an appreciation of ourselves as persons inherently free of sin, we are urged to anchor the elevation in a tangible action that will carry it through to the coming year.

The acceptance need not be bombastic. Indeed, it should not be, for this would place it in danger of being lost, leaving us next year in a condition no better than that of the present. Rather, writes R’ Yisrael, it should be small. Five minutes of mussar study; a short seder of studying halachah; intensifying our intent for the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei; reciting the berachah of hamotzi slowly and with intent.

Of course, these are but examples, and the Yom Kippur inspiration will lead each person in a different direction. The important thing is that the inspiration, the redefinition that we experience on Yom Kippur, should make a difference to the entire year.

May the words of the verse apply to us in the fullest sense: “If your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become [white] as wool.” And may the whiteness of Yom Kippur make an indelible mark on the entire year ahead.

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