by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 6, 2016
Every year, after we begin a new Jewish year, as we come to the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishre, we encounter a very special opportunity in our lives. In His holy Torah (Vayikra 23:27), G-d proclaims, “On the tenth day of this seventh month [Tishre] shall be a day of atonement.” The omni-benevolent G-d sets aside for us one day in the year, the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that, even if we were too preoccupied on every other day of the year to do so, we are given on this special day the opportunity to consider and contemplate our actions and behavior and, in turn, repent and atone for those actions or attitudes that we find to be misguided. We are given the chance to correct our behavior and, so to speak, “turn over a new leaf” in our lives – for our ultimate benefit.
Certainly, repentance is not reserved only for the day of Yom Kippur. In fact, throughout the Holy Scriptures, repentance is mentioned, proclaimed and preached regardless of what day of the year it may be. We are warned to cease wrongdoing (Yeshaya 33:15, Tehillim 15; 24:4) and we are encouraged to adopt only the path of good (Yeshaya 1:17; 58, Yirmiyahu 7:3, 26:13, Amos 5:14-15, Tehillim 34:15-16; 37:27). In various ways, we are urged in the Scriptures to repent and change our wrongful ways. We are advised to “incline your heart to the L-rd” (Yehoshua 24:23), to “circumcise yourselves unto the L-rd and remove the barriers of your heart” (Yirmiyahu 4:4), to “wash your heart” (Yirmiyahu 4:14) and to “make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Yechezkel 18:31).
Our Sages, too, stress the importance of repentance, regardless of the time of the year. They tell us that the principle of repentance preceded even the creation of the world itself (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 54a), that it reaches to the very Throne of Glory (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a) and that it prolongs one’s life and hastens our Redemption (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b). G-d urges us, our Sages relate, to open for Him an aperture of repentance even as narrow as the eye of a needle and G-d will, in turn, open for us gates [wide enough] through which wagons and coaches can pass (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2).
We are repeatedly reminded of the importance to engage in repentance of our misguided deeds, views and attitudes, regardless of the time of year. We are asked to regret our mistaken actions, renounce our wrongful ways, confess our misdeeds, beg forgiveness for our misbehavior and resolve not to repeat any such actions or thoughts in the future (see Emunot v’Deot 5:5, Chovot HaLevavot 7:4, Mishne Torah, Teshuva 2:2).
Nevertheless, so many of us are so preoccupied throughout the year with our mundane day to day needs, responsibilities, desires and aspirations that we often find it hard to devote time to regular introspection and contemplation of our daily thoughts and actions. G-d, therefore, in His great benevolence, does not take us immediately to task for our actions or for neglecting to consider and repent our misdeeds at the time they occur. G-d, as our loving Father in Heaven, grants us extra time. He grants us an extension – up to the day of Yom Kippur. Our lack of repentance for our actions is temporarily waived, until one day of the year. On all days of the year, our neglect of introspection and contemplation of our deeds is overlooked, except for one day. All days of the year we are allowed to engage in our personal needs and responsibilities, desires and aspirations, as long as one day – the holy day of Yom Kippur – we put aside everything else and devote our thoughts to honest introspection and true repentance for our misdeeds and wrongdoing.
What a wonderful gift: the opportunity to reconsider our actions, change our ways for the better and draw closer to our Father in Heaven – despite our past misdeeds! But as we “turn over a new leaf,” we should do so carefully and not damage other sections of the tree. The wise King Solomon tells us (Mishle 3:18), “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it.” The path of Torah is a source of everlasting life if we grasp it properly. In the attempt to nurture one part of the tree that we may have previously neglected, we must be careful not to damage other parts in the process.
So many of us have reversed wrongful actions whereby we have veered off the path paved for us by our loving Father in Heaven. So many of us regret and resolve to correct misdeeds whereby we have strayed from the path prescribed for us by G-d. So many of us, as we drive down the road of life, find that we have made a wrong turn and we look to find our way back on to the road. But, when we drive back on to the road, we must be careful not to run over anyone or anything in the process, thereby causing only further problems for ourselves. In our zeal to correct past misdeeds, we must be careful not to engage in new ones that may be just as bad or even worse.
The latter day Torah giant R. Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899 – 2001), among others, related a story of an incident that occurred in the life of the great Torah luminary R. Yisrael Salanter (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 81-82). A G-d fearing shochet (one who slaughters animals in accordance with Jewish law) once confided in R. Salanter that he wished to stop working as a shochet and, instead, open a store, because of his fear of inadvertently slaughtering an animal improperly and, thereby, causing others to eat forbidden meat. R. Salanter was taken aback at this thought. “Listen to what you are saying!” R. Salanter began. “You have just told me that you do not trust yourself not to slaughter improperly. Yet slaughtering is an area whose laws are relatively well defined. After all, the gemara devotes several chapters to the topic, there is a section about it in Shulchan Arukh with extensive commentaries, and a number of works have been written to clarify all the relevant laws. Moreover, there is only one commandment involved, the prohibition of eating neveilah. If, on the other hand, you go into business, you have to know many more laws to avoid a whole host of prohibitions: theft, deception, cheating, falsehood, overcharging, taking interest, using false weights and measures, to name just a few.” Consequently, in one’s well-meaning zeal to avoid wrongdoing, one may, inadvertently engage in actions riddled with even more problems and concerns.
An incident is reported to have occurred a number of years ago during the life of the noted latter day Torah luminary R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899 – 1985), known as the Steipler Gaon. At one point, over a relatively short period of time, a number of observant Jews in Bnei Brak who were known for their Torah erudition passed away at an early age. Many found this to be perplexing and upsetting. So they turned to R. Kanievsky for an explanation. He responded that, in looking into the background of each of these scholars who passed away, there was one common denominator. Each of these scholars’ fathers was a survivor of concentration camps who did not have the opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education. However, after surviving the camps, each father began a new life in the Land of Israel and was determined that his son would receive a proper Jewish education. Each of these scholars, as a result, received an ample education that their fathers were denied. However, as the sons became more learned and recognized their own fathers’ lack of knowledge, they began to treat their fathers in a certain manner of degradation. This, the Steipler Gaon asserted, led to these scholars’ untimely passing. They enveloped their admirable education in a wrapping of smugness and conceit, not only to others in general, even to their own parents who provided them the opportunity despite the greatest of difficulties. They ascended the ladder of Torah erudition but descended into the abyss of conceit and inadequate respect for their parents.
Some in their newfound smugness, latch on to a given incident wherein they happened upon a mistake their parents or a given rabbinic leader made to justify their not relying on the judgement of their parents or the rabbi who erred. Again, a story related by R. Shach (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 85-86) sheds some light in this respect too. Tension once arose in a particular community between the rabbi of the town and some of the scholars in the town. In wake of this tension, the scholars began to view the rabbi’s judgement on issues of Jewish law with a very critical eye and, as a result, latched on to a prior ruling of this rabbi that they considered to be mistaken and attempted to utilize it to prove the rabbi’s incompetence. The rabbi continued to insist that he was in the right and the conflict intensified. The rabbi’s opponents sent a telegram to the leading rabbinic authority of the time, R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor in Kovna. Shortly afterwards, a return telegram was received agreeing with the rabbi’s opponents, followed immediately by a retraction from R. Spektor claiming that he made a mistake and asserting that the rabbi was indeed correct. By feigning a mistake, R. Spektor impressed on the adversaries that even the highest rabbinic authority can make a mistake and, even if such occurs, that alone is not cause for besmirching or invalidating an otherwise erudite rabbi and Torah scholar. Mistakes can happen even to the greatest of individuals and we should not use such incidents as a license to invalidate another who is otherwise worthy of respect.
One should also note another story related by R. Shach (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 226) concerning the great Torah giant R. Chaim Soloveitchik. It is told that when R. Soloveitchik sought a new dayyan (rabbinical judge) for his city, he would send a request to R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the famed rabbi of Vilna, to recommend an “expert judge” for the position, explaining that by “expert judge” he meant an individual who was capable of occasionally admitting that he made a mistake. The great R. Chaim Soloveitchik recognized that an occasional error is not antithetical to expertise in judgement, and admitting such an error was in fact laudatory and in no way impugned that individual’s status as an expert.
It is also worthy to note, as related in the workRabbeinu HaGadol that the great latter day Torah scion R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910 – 1995) would urge his students to take on public responsibilities, and, when one student wished to compile a work on halakha (Jewish law) but feared misinterpreting the law, R. Auerbach encouraged him, saying: “A person must be very careful when rendering halakhic decisions or when explaining the halakha to others and must express himself precisely. Nevertheless, his circumspection and fear should not prevent him from writing.” After saying this, R. Auerbach went on to mention that, when R. Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the famous Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, published the second edition of his work, he made over 200 corrections!
Sadly, many returnees to the Jewish faith do not have observant parents to turn to for guidance and, therefore, must explore and reveal for themselves the proper path to Judaism. And, as alluded to in the story above, some have observant parents who, for one reason or another, did not have a satisfactory Jewish education, leaving their children, who may have been fortunate to study more than their parents to see the right path to G-d a little more clearly. But we must still remember to maintain the proper respect due our parents, nevertheless, recognizing the very important role they play in our lives, despite whatever shortcomings they may have. All the more so, when one has parents who are observant, G-d fearing and learned, raised in G-d fearing homes by G-d fearing grandparents in an environment of G-d fearing Jewish communities of days gone by, one must be all the more careful not to fall into a misguided smugness or conceit that has become prevalent among many in recent generations. One must keep in mind a comment made by the Brisker Rav, R. Zev Soloveitchik to R. Shach (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 15-16) that it is “impossible for us to make a comparison between someone who lives today and someone of the previous generation…for they belong to completely different classes.” According to R. Soloveitchik, those of one generation are lacking even in comparison to an immediately preceding generation. Times are different, backgrounds are different, experiences are different, influences are different, let alone the extent of life experience that those older than us have lived through, all of which contribute to added wisdom and understanding that strict “book” knowledge cannot always provide.
One should keep in mind that it is good and admirable and advisable and laudatory to turn over a new leaf but do not burn down the tree in the process. One who has basked in the pleasant shade of a tree and enjoyed its good fruits but wishes to prune it to help it grow better should be careful not to let his cutting instrument damage otherwise good parts of the tree. A good relationship with caring, thoughtful and erudite parents or rabbinic leaders or Torah scholars or others in the community is to be cherished and nurtured and not to be cavalierly or smugly pushed aside as one marches towards a given goal, even if the goal be laudatory. One must properly weigh and consider the background and understanding of others who may have much to offer and consider one’s own limited experience and understanding. One should also take into consideration and sympathize with the pressures that may lead others sometimes to err or be limited in some areas. Ignoring or pushing such people away who have much to offer us, regardless of their limitations, may only serve to cut us off from a wealth of life experience and understanding that can help us grow, in addition to the hurt feelings of others that we are prescribed by G-d to prevent. In smugly ignoring the thoughts of others, we stand the very likely chance of creating more problems, as R. Salanter points out, while we seek to solve others. As we attempt to ascend the tree of life that G-d has prepared for us and, in trying to correct problems along the way, we turn over a new leaf, we must be careful not to do so in such a way that will damage or burn down the rest of the tree.
May we all properly repent and atone our misguided thoughts and actions, correcting our wrongdoing without causing other misdeeds and, may we, thereby, succeed in rising to greater and greater heights in our path to approach closer and closer to our Father in heaven, our benevolent Creator and Master of the Universe.