A Message For Yom Kippur by Rabbi Joseph Dwek, Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation of London
Yom Kippur is often dubbed ‘The Holiest Day of the Year’. Throughout time, Yom Kippur has been a day approached by all Jews with reverence. It is our day of truth. On Yom Kippur we stand before God and beg His pardon for our missteps and transgressions. We come together to speak openly and transparently about our flaws and vices. We acknowledge that while we may not be entirely sure how to live without our flaws, we will not, on this day, pretend that we don’t have them. By accepting who we are and the choices we have made, for better or worse, we live truer, stronger lives.
It is important, then, that we relate to our flaws and failures appropriately. The terminology is key. The word ‘sin’, for example, is a poor choice that carries guilt and negativity and is not a Jewish word. One of the Jewish terms for transgression is the Hebrew het meaning to ‘miss the mark’ approaching failure from a different perspective. It aims us towards creating a refined and perfected existence and through it growing closer to God.
From the perspective of het we understand that in this endeavour of life there are times when we fall short or miss the mark. As marksmen, we are not expected to wallow in guilt and self-doubt when we err. The concept of het has us acknowledge that the target was missed and prompts us to try again with better aim and sharper precision rather than berate ourselves for having missed. When we relate to our missteps in this way we save ourselves from the danger of feeling inferior, which can take all the momentum out of our drive to succeed.
Through all of it the greatest hope for our success at hitting the mark comes from God. He wishes to see His creations succeed, as we do with our own children. He created us with potential and charged us with maximizing it. Every choice we make in life is an arrow we shoot that is aimed at a real and meaningful target. Each one makes a difference. Yom Kippur is the day that we concede before God that we have been remiss in meeting our goals and we ask to be granted the opportunity to continue with the task of self-creation despite our infractions. Yom Kippur is the day that we are truthful about our faults and resolve to succeed, which is essential in actualising our greatest potential.
Therefore, on Yom Kippur our key objective is to accept the reality of how things transpired in our lives. We avoid rationalisations at all costs. We also verbally articulate our transgressions – what we call viduy. Viduy is the centerpiece to all of the day’s prayers since verbally admitting that you have made a mistake is far more powerful than simply acknowledging it in your thoughts. Speaking about our imperfections helps us to genuinely accept that they are real and brings about a powerful state of clarity from which we can truly master our self-improvement.
The viduy that all of Israel is accustomed to [say] is: “Aval Hatanu...” – “Indeed, we have missed the mark...” and this is the core of the viduy.
Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuba, 2:8
Coming together once a year to concede our misgivings is a holy endeavor. We approach the day with reverence before God because we know that we are addressing our most sacred work -- the lifelong project of self-fulfillment and the acknowledgement that we have strayed from our goals. One day a year we commit to being utterly truthful about the choices we’ve made and their respective consequences. The day’s sanctity lies in knowing in our hearts that there is no one who supports our achievements more than the Holy One, for we are His unique and beloved creations and he cheers for our triumph. May we find favor in His eyes and be sealed in the Book of Life.