Scrutiny and Study

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14 Sep 2018
Yom Kippur

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Among the sins that we ask Hashem for forgiveness on Yom Kippur are “the sins that we committed before You bli daat/without knowledge.” While Artscroll interprets these sins to be the result of self – imposed ignorance, Rabbi Meislish notes these sins are the result of ignorance, but not necessarily self- imposed, but he adds that even if you did not know the halachah, you should have learned it or at least asked about it.  He also explains that there are other aspects of “ ignorance” in our avodas Hashem.

Rabbi Rothberg, in studying Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, notices an interesting anomaly. Rambam generally notes four components of Teshuvah, including regret and resolution for the future, but, writes Rabbi Rothberg in Moda Labinah, for the laws of Yom Kippur, the Rambam notes that the day focuses only on confession, acknowledging our sins, both personal and communal. Why is this so?

Admitting one has sinned against God is extremely difficult. One may admit he’s done something wrong and may even resolve to abstain from that behavior, but verbalizing and identifying the sin before God may still remain elusive. This reluctance has been part of the human psyche since the beginning of time, for Adam himself hid from God and blamed the woman rather than admit to God that he had sinned. King Saul too admitted he did wrong by not destroying all of Amalek, but he blamed the people for his failure. Only if we can acknowledge the reality of our responsibility for the sin and specify what we did wrong can the other steps of teshuvah follow naturally.

To accept that I have sinned against God requires honesty, continues Rabbi Rothberg. Yom Kippur is meant to open our eyes and hearts to be able to say, “I have sinned,” to understand that the sin has an effect on me, on my essence. Only when I own up to that reality can I be cleansed and purified.  This vidui, acknowledges, that it is hard for me to recognize that what I have done is considered a sin.

But, as our tefillot continue, we say, Hashem, You know all the secrets of our heart. Therefore forgive us for our sins, for, writes Rabbi Scher z”l in Leket Sichot Mussar, we forget that we are standing before You at all times. We have lost the recognition of the greatness of Hashem. So, we ask Hashem to make His presence a reality for us.  On a deeper level, this vidui recognizes, that we don’t have the daas, the intimate knowledge of Hashem’s presence at all times in my life.

Without this awareness, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l, we’ve lost clarity and are suspended in mid- air, so much so that we can confuse ourselves into believing that an act is actually a mitzvah even when it is an absolute sin. If you are totally aware that you are standing before Hakadosh Baruch Hu and you act this way anyway, then you are totally lost.

Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein quoting the Gra z”l,  explains the process that creates this confusion. As our commentators note, the world was created with the letter heh [Bereishit 2:4]. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has symbolic value. The heh, formed from the combination of the daled and a yud, combines the physical world of dimensions with the spiritual world of the yud that floats in space. When one loses contact with the authentically spiritual and is interested only in the appearance of the spiritual while remaining rooted in the physical, one extends the yud so that it touches bottom, becoming a vuv. It looks almost the same. However, now the combination of daled and vuv form a new letter, a kuf. The elongated letter now blocks the pseudo spiritual person from reentering the spiritual realm the same way he left, and he must find a new entry point through the opening at the top. In the interim, he is a kuf/monkey, mimicking spirituality, but being inauthentic. In this state, he doesn’t even know that he is sinning and his priorities are skewed. He/she is more interested in the new clothing she will wear to shul than in the depth of her prayers, or in the appearance of the table to her Shabbat or yom tov guests than if the food was prepared according to the stringencies of the laws of Shabbat. She has no knowledge that she is doing anything wrong. In fact, adds Rabbi Yaakov Hillel in Ascending the Path, he’s convinced he’s doing the mitzvah of hachnosat orchim/bringing guests into his home.

In reality, adds Rabbi Scher z”l, all our sins are by accident, without knowledge. Either I was not careful enough and did not think through my actions, I did not scrutinize them in advance, or I did not know the law as I had not studied it properly. To be a true eved Hashem/servant of God requires constant vigilance, constant examination before action coupled with regular reflection and assessment afterward.

Rebbetzin Feldbrand gives us an additional perspective on this reckoning. It is not only our actions themselves that must be scrutinized, but also the motivating factors behind them. Be completely honest, and resolve that tomorrow you will move forward, rather than back. Only then you can ask Hashem to forgive you for your shortcomings.

This scrutiny must be accompanied by a willingness to change. But change is extremely difficult, writes Rabbi Frand in Listen to Your Messages. Willingness to change inherently implies an admission of previous error. People will make all sorts of excuses to keep from admitting wrongdoing or sinning, attributing actual halachah to custom or stringencies. This habit can begin the slide down a slippery slope that eventually leads to denying the wisdom of rabbis and repudiating the Torah itself. One must take responsibility for one’s actions, adds Rabbi Lugassi, for each of us has a huge bag of excuses for avoiding responsibility.

Rabbi Schorr, in Halekach Vehalebuv explains that the only way we can do teshuvah is if we take responsibility for what we have done. We cannot claim that everything is predetermined, for we have free choice. Resolve to be a heh, not a kuf. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing, such as refraining from talking during during the chazan’s repetition of the shemoneh esrei, for fear you’ll be called holier than thou. It is not enough to do enough to get by, to be a good Jew. We must strive to do our best, adds Rabbi Yaakov Hillel.

Indeed, Hashem created the yetzer horo within us, but he also gave us the antidote, the Torah, reminds us Rabbi Pincus z”l. Start studying the Torah, learn the laws that apply in all kinds of circumstances. One can start by learning one halachah a day, or, as the Chofetz Chaim Foundation suggests, learning one or two halachot of shemirat halashon every day. [One can get a daily email by sending an email to and typing “subscribe” in the subject line. CKS] If you prefer, form groups to study together the laws of Shabbat, for they are so intricate that they require constant review. The introduction to the Mishneh Berurah teaches that learning the laws of Shabbat will lead to the redemption.

Although it is unlikely that we can live through a year without sinning at all, through constant vigilance and continued study, the body of sins we commit in this category will shrink from year to year, bringing us closer to the pure beings Hashem envisioned in creating mankind.

Have a meaningful and easy fast, and may Hashem inscribe us individually and nationally for a year of success, health and peace in our spiritual and physical lives.

May the pure neshamos who have ascended to shamayim this year find their menuchah and be meilitzei yosher for their brethren, Beis Yisroel. These two have passed within the last few days:

Miriam Ilana Rinah a”h bas Yaakov n”y Pfeffer – a 15 year old girl who lived with her emunah.

Ari a”h ben Yonah n”y Fuld who died an akedah on the fires of terrorism.

[Yonah Fuld and I studied at Machon Gold together in 1962. I don’t know if Ari or Yonah have middle names.]

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