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Yom Kippur 2012: Maintaining Focus

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We begin the prayer services for Yom Kippur with one of the strangest announcements:

Anu matirin l’hispalel im ha’avaryanim” — “We sanction prayer with the transgressors.”

Some probably glance around the shul, looking for the old guys with their white satin skullcaps sitting next to their middle-aged sons with their white satin skullcaps, joined by the grandsons with yet a third white satin skullcap — stereotypically reflecting three generations of decreasing ritual observance, Hebrew proficiency and overall connection to the heritage of their past — and can’t help wonder how the author of this prayer knew that these guys were going to show up.  With their car keys in their pockets and the smell of ham still on their breathes, who better to have in shul if we really want to include the sinners!

But that’s not who the prayer refers to.

The Talmud (Bavli RH 16b) speaks metaphorically about how each of us are inscribed into a book based on our deeds from the past year.  The tzaddikim gemurim (“entirely righteous”) are said to be inscribed in the book of life, while the resha’im gemurim (“entirely wicked”) are said to be inscribed in, well, the opposite book.  The beinonim (“mediocre” individuals) are not judged on Rosh Hashanah but hang in the balance until Yom Kippur, at which time they are judged based on the amount of reflection and introspection they performed during the Ten Days of Repentance.

Now, at first glance, it appears as though we must all be guilty of mediocrity — for who among us is entirely righteous or entirely wicked?  Surprisingly, though, Rashi explains that the beinonim are those whose positive and negative achievements are mechtza al mechtza (“half against half”) — in other words, one who possesses merits and demerits of precisely equivalent quantity and/or quality.

But if we accept this definition, it now seems that no one will fit into any of the catergories!  No one is all good or all bad, and the statistical probability that all of our actions are perfectly balanced seems just as unlikely.  Altogether, it seems like no one’s going in any of these books, and so what’s the purpose of this allegory if all three books remain empty?

Looking at Rashi, though, we see that our definitions of tzaddikim gemurim and resha’im gemurim are off.  He explains that those whose negative deeds outweigh their positive deeds are considered to be entirely wicked, and conversely, those whose positive deeds outnumber their negative deeds are considered entirely righteous.

But we are taught not to enter Yom Kippur brazenly, as though we don’t need to change.  Each and every one of us has defects that need mending and each of us can improve, for perfection is a journey, not a destination.  In the end, we are the avaryanim in the Kol Nidrei prayer, and just because the allegory has us all included in the book of life on the technicality that our merits are greater in number, we must not forget that we can all change for the better.

A g’mar chasima tova to all!

For more on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance), please visit 4torah.com.

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  • P. gingivalis

    I read the entire thing. Nice!

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      Dr. Deasy would be so proud!

  • Mel

    When I read Rashi’s interpretation the first thing I thought of was that is how the electoral collage works. In each state whoever receives the majority of the vote receives all of the electoral votes for the state. Some might argue that I should not try to improve, or I should not vote, if I believe the good has outweighed the bad by even a little bit. What I think you are arguing, and I personally agree, is that even if that is the case you as an individual should still strive to do better, and should still vote, even if the one vote or the one good deed won’t make a difference. WELL SAID.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

      The parallel you’ve drawn is invalid.

      You assume that as long as one has been grouped among the entirely righteous that it makes no difference how many merits one needed to get there. You equate the guy with 37 virtues and only 4 transgressions with the guy who has 24 virtues and 23 transgressions — but they are not the same. And is every deed of equal magnitude, or do the big ones count for double or triple? I cannot say, for we do not even begin to understand how things are calculated.

      In the electoral college, the means are only to an end. If the state consistently votes in a particular manner and has done so for the last 30 elections and there have been no gerrymandering or population drifts or sociological shifts, than a single vote will most likely not make a difference and there is therefore no political rationale on the individual level for one to vote.

      • G*3

        The rationale is that if everyone has that attitude, no one will vote, or that if everyone assumes that the state will go Republican, and so all the Democrats stay home, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a true reflection of the state’s population.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          Precisely — but the majority of citizens don’t think clearly and presume that their individual votes are important, ensuring that everyone else will still vote.

      • Mel

        You are forgetting a very important factor. Even though we have a secret ballot so no one knows who you voted for the fact that you voted is known. The total votes for each candidate in each voting poll etc. is known. This effects any politician who uses this info to decide how he should vote on legislation and where he should put his time & money in the future.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:DRosenbach DRosenbach

          And you’re forgetting a very important factor — a change in a voting numbers by a single digit is not going to make a difference in any election. The local guys have nowhere else to go because this is their district, and the national guys are not focusing on Passaic County based on a single vote.

  • ksil

    the metsuda machzor in the introduction has a nice vort on the benoni issue

  • Anonymous