For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard talk of reducing our national deficit, if not eliminating it completely. Even China, the seeming world champion of financial growth, is confronting a whopping 50 trillion dollars in national debt (that’s trillion with a captital ‘T’). As I headed into Yom Kippur, I read an article discussing whether it is possible to ever pay off such staggering debt, two or three times our national GDP.
The parallel was inevitable.
We enter Yom Kippur, facing our list of personal transgressions from the past year. We, too, try to erase our deficit, aiming to start the New Year afresh.
In both deficits, there are no solutions in sight. For as long as humans live, we’ll never stop making mistakes. It’s not possible to overcome our failings, any more than we can overcome being in debt. But unlike other predicaments, here the emphasis is not on the solution, but rather on attitude. As Churchill famously said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” But on Yom Kippur, enthusiasm is not enough.
If the national debt is an expression of consumer spending, demanding restraint of us, on Yom Kippur we focus on a different form of repentance — teshuvah. From the root “to return,” it means to recover, to rebound to our original self, to restore how we arrived in this world, pure and innocent, desperate for a loving embrace.
Like getting out of debt, the New Year’s resolution landscape is full of commitments for change — but teshuvah is unlike any other pledge. It doesn’t rely on efficiency or discipline but requires our becoming a “New Us.”
I think of Viktor Frankl’s famous edict from his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I wonder if we can discover a new, kinder us this coming new year, rather than be defined through our impulsive reactions to others?!
Every Shabbat we try to fence ourselves into a spiritual world, limiting our use of technology, but on Yom Kippur, which we refer to as Shabbat Shabbaton — a double Shabbat — we restrict ourselves from food, fancy dress, and the use of all that we own. In doing so, we hope to open a different part of ourselves and disconnect from the egocentric I, shifting our intention from self-benefit to the benefit of others.
But how do we achieve that? Change is hard, and no amount of praying or fasting will change us unless we know what to wish for. Humans are creatures who want, yet when asking a Jew on Yom Kippur “What do you pray for?” most people find it difficult to express their ultimate wish.
Our underlying fears usually involve pain and death, yet our deepest longing, it seems to me, are not for the absence of these two threats, but for love.
Whether it is the pure love of a child, a spouse, a parent, or love of self, all love starts somewhere. While human love for one another is contingent and conditional, love of God transcends any condition. The Shema prayer demands that we love God, but how can we be commanded to love? Only those who feel love can pass it on, so the experience should start with receiving love. And not surprisingly, our liturgy does just that.
Did we ever stop and wonder why the central line in our seminal prayer, Shema, is dedicated to love?
The Shema is set in between two sections. The first tells us that God loves us unconditionally, culminating with the blessing of the Almighty who chooses us in love. Only after that, and after we recite the Shema, are we commanded to love God.
In between the two, the Shema is positioned, in essence, commanding us to just stop and listen. What is so transcendent in stopping to listen that makes this the centerpiece of our liturgy?
My understanding is that we’re required to observe, learn, and listen, for only then can we arrive at being at our best — appreciating the people around us, understanding the world, and accepting our place in it. We must pause and take notice, so as not to bypass our skeptical inner voice, the one that says: “Ya, ya, I know this already.” Everything is dependent upon stopping to listen. Once we can appreciate the love given to us — only then can we become givers of love and find the empathy for others within ourselves. We can then find the joy encapsulated within the gift of being alive.
Such is Yom Kippur, but a thousand times over.
Love is transformative, the only tool that enables us to change. Feeling loved — loved by God, our Heavenly Father — is what teaches us to love. Only after learning to love, does the prayer ask us to teach our children and create a world of love.
Yom Kippur is much more than a tradition. It reflects a deep, internal state in human development. And, unlike national debt and financial deficits, human shortcoming is overcome by love, which starts in feeling loved.
Thus, when asked: what do I pray for; what do I repent for? My answer is simple:
“God, may you forgive me for forgetting how much you love me, for if I had, I’d have found it hard to get upset when I felt appreciated. I’d avoid being petty, egocentric and careless. I pray to remember your love each and every day, so that I may live a better life and toss my early deficits away, into the depths of the sea, and become the best me, ever! Amen!”
Feeling loved, we can restore ourselves to the true us, the best of us, as Carlebach’s song reminds us:
“Return again, return again,
“Return to the land of your soul.
“Return to who you are,
“Return to what you are,
“Return to where you are born and reborn again.”
Reborn by teshuvah, we step into our sukkah and remember how, as children in the proverbial desert of our nation’s eternal youth, God had provided for us, and we felt God’s ultimate protection. “God, embrace us and protect us within your sukkah of eternal peace.”
Soli Foger, who is an architect, grew up in Israel. He and his wife, the educator Dr. Tani Foger, have lived in Englewood for 27 years. They have four sons and four grandchildren.