Yom Kippur 2012: Maintaining Focus

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.