It was a Friday night, in a little shtetl in Eastern Europe. A number of teenage boys were roaming the streets after their Shabbos meal. Teenage boys being teenage boys, they got bored and decided to push some boundaries. Despite it being Shabbos, they decided to go smoke a cigarette. Of course, they couldn’t do so publicly in this very religious shtetl, so they snuck off to one of the barns, one of the boys pulled out a cigarette, and they started to smoke.
Unfortunately for them, someone tipped off their parents. The parents told some of their neighbors. The neighbors told the rest of the town, and before you knew it, the entire shtetl started marching towards the barn, led by the town rabbi. They burst open the doors of the barn, the boys froze. The cigarette is dropped immediately but the barn stinks of smoke; the boys are busted.
Everyone starts yelling and screaming, “Shabbos!!!” But the rabbi silences them. He turns to the adults and whispers, “Maybe the boys are sorry. We need to give them a chance.” The adults stand back.
“Boys,” says the rabbi, “do you have anything to say for yourselves?”
The first boy responds, “Yes, yes, yes, I do. I am, um, terribly sorry. I-I am sorry because I forgot that today is Shabbos.” The people of the town nod their heads in approval.
The next boy comes forward. “I am also sorry. I am sorry because I forgot that you’re not allowed to smoke on Shabbos.” Once again, the townsfolk nod along.
The last boy steps forward. “I am terribly sorry.”
“Nu, what are you sorry for?” asks the rabbi.
“I am sorry that I forgot to lock the barndoor.”
(Heard from Rabbi Judah Mischel)
It’s a cute story. But there’s a powerful lesson here. We’re spending the next 24 hours saying, I have sinned, I am sorry. Which “sorry” will we be emulating? Boy one who “forgot” it’s Shabbos, boy two who “forgot” that it’s forbidden to smoke on Shabbos, or boy three who forgot to lock the barndoor?
My goal is to emulate boy three.
And let me tell you why.
One of the strange things we do on Yom Kippur is repeat ourselves. A lot. We just said Kol Nidrei – three times. We will conclude Neilah by saying, Hashem hu Ho’Elokim over and over again. Throughout the day we will repeat the words, “I am sorry.” We beat our chest and say Viduy, the great apology or confessional, ashamnu, bagadnu, five times in the five shemoneh esreis we say on Yom Kippur, and we repeat it again during the five repetitions. Ten times in total! There is a lot of repetition in Judaism – we are expected to say shemoneh esrei three times a day – but Yom Kippur is unique in its repetitiveness.
In the past I have told you that the reason we repeat viduy so many times is because each time we are going to a deeper place. We begin on level one, spiritually & psychologically, it’s somewhat superficial. As the day progresses, as we progress, as we change and grow through the holiness of the day, we climb the rungs of holiness, of kedusha. Deeper and deeper, higher and higher, until we reach Neilah, at which point, we have ripped away all the psychological barriers to our apologies, we have climbed to the highest rung of holiness, and now we can say, ashamnu and bagadnu at the highest or deepest level.
While that answer is true, there’s another answer that is perhaps even more true, and that is: If we say our confessional ten times, if we apologize over and over again, there is a chance that out of those ten times, we will apologize at least once in a genuine fashion. (Based on the Shibolei Haleket) In other words, we are shooting for a spiritual batting average of .100. One genuine apology. It sounds easily attainable, no?
But it’s not.
Years ago, I remember apologizing to my wife. I wish I remembered what it was about. Like most disagreements, it doesn’t really matter five minutes later. But this was not just any apology. I said all the right words. I even wrote it down in a letter. I acknowledged all of my shortcomings. I recognized the impact they had.
Well, Hindy gave me permission to share with you that the apology fell incredibly flat. It didn’t resonate at all.
What I learned that day is that an apology is not judged by the words we use or even the truths we reveal. It is judged by the sense of presence that we experience in the process. Are we really here apologizing? Or am I just standing here, just saying or writing words, but “I,” me in the fullest sense, is not really here. That’s why my apology fell flat, and that’s why it’s not so easy to properly say Viduy on Yom Kippur. To be present, to see and know who we are standing before and to speak from the heart, is no easy task.
The term we use to describe that sense of presence is vulnerability, the act of truly opening up to someone else. Despite my eloquence and saying all the right words, my apology betrayed no vulnerability whatsoever.
These days, it’s very hip to be vulnerable; everyone’s sharing everything about their lives to one another, everyone’s saying I am sorry, everyone is acknowledging their fears, and there’s a part of me that is so tired of hearing that word. Doesn’t vulnerability lose its magic if everyone is being vulnerable?
But the truth is, what we are surrounded by is not vulnerability; it’s faux vulnerability. It’s the cheap stuff.
Vulnerability is judged not by what you say, but by how it makes you feel. If it is an act of revelation – of revealing oneself, it should make you a little uncomfortable. If it does, it’s a sign that you’re doing it right. Otherwise, it’s a fake. Otherwise, you aren’t really here; you’re standing here, your lips are moving, but you’re communicating, not from your heart, but from somewhere else entirely.
So yes, we will say the same apology over and over and over again with the hope that one time it will come out right. Because it’s not easy at all. But vulnerability is what G-d really wants from us. Rachmana liba ba’i. Hashem wants our heart. He wants us fully. He wants us to stand before Him – an awareness of ourselves and an awareness of who we are standing before.
Rav Chaim Brisker explains that there are two essential components to prayer; knowing what we’re saying, and the knowledge that we are standing before G-d. People tell me all the time how they struggle with prayer. They could read the English translation, but they don’t really understand the words. I get that; it’s not easy to really understand all the words even if they’re translated into English. But standing before G-d; closing our eyes and imagining, or not even imagining but acknowledging that we are standing before the Creator of the World, that we are in an audience with our Father, our true Father, that’s something we can all strive for regardless of how much we know.
But it takes vulnerability to do so. And on no day, does it take more vulnerability than today. I’ll speak for myself here. On Yom Kippur, I am going to say, I am sorry for things that… I am not sure if I could really change. I am going to say I am sorry, knowing that in a week from now, maybe a day from now, I will be doing those things again. I want to change, but I’ve been here before. I don’t know if I can.
And so, I do what I did when I apologized to Hindy, I say the words, but I am not always fully present. How could I be?
A little while ago, someone I know quite well called me to discuss an issue. The man on the phone told me he recently realized he’s gay, he told me he’s now in a relationship, and he’s confused. Not confused about being gay or about his relationship, mind you, but about whether or not he could identify as an Orthodox Jew. He asked me what I thought.
This is what I told him. I said, “I don’t speak for G-d. I don’t know what He is thinking. But I do feel very confident in telling you the following:
You show up. You turn to G-d and acknowledge who you are – no matter who you are. You turn to G-d and acknowledge what you do – no matter what you do. Be present. Be honest. Because G-d loves you. He will love you no different than He did last year. If anything, if anything, He will love you more for being honest, for being vulnerable with Him.”
Now before you get a little ‘judgy’ about my friend, let’s all be honest here – Show me a person who has no internal contradictions and I’ll show you a person who has zero self-awareness. We are all full of inconsistencies, and if we were to be honest with ourselves, that is one of the great impediments to fully standing before Hashem. We ask ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, “Does He really love me? Does He want to hear from me?”
The answer is yes. He does love us. He does want to hear from you and He does want to hear from me. Not just the words. Rachman liba ba’i. He wants us fully. He wants our heart. And to stand before Him fully we need to be vulnerable, we need to be honest, and it’s not easy! It hurts to be vulnerable! That’s why we don’t like experiencing it. And that’s why we need to say the words over and over again until we get there.
That boy who was sorry for not locking the door – obviously that is not the be-all of teshuva, of course not! We need to change from who we are, always. But his apology was far more honest than mine. His self-awareness, his honesty is where and how the process of change begins.
Throughout this Yom Kippur, we will stand in silent prayer five times. We will say, I am sorry, over and over again. Can we be fully present before G-d? Can we close our eyes and recognize that we are standing before the Creator of our world; a Creator who breathed life into our nostrils, who felt the world was incomplete without us? Can we envision and appreciate what it means to have an audience with the Master of the Universe who created this beautiful planet and all the galaxies? Can we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with gratitude as we stand before Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, who guided our people from Egypt to the Land of Israel, from the Holocaust to the State of Israel, from the beginning of time until today? Can we be filled with warmth knowing that we are standing before our Father, who wants nothing more than for us to be honest with Him, to open ourselves up, to share our dreams with Him, our aspirations, a Father who loves us – no matter what. Can we experience this for just one moment out of these next 24 hours?!
That’s my goal for Yom Kippur. To truly stand before G-d. And when I’ve truly internalized that I am standing before Him, to say, with a full heart, with genuine vulnerability, I am sorry Hashem for leaving the barn door unlocked.