Atonement, Forgiveness and Jokes: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

    September 2011          
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Opinion & Society


Repentance and the Joke

By Avi Lazerson

There is a popular joke that has been circulating in the emails that goes like this:

    As the rabbi began his lecture on repentance, he asked the class, "What must we do before we can expect forgiveness from sin?"

    After a long silence, one of the men in attendance raised his hand and said:


Although this is really meant as a joke, in every joke there is some reality. The reality that is in the joke is that before a person can expect forgiveness, he/she must have sinned. Without a sin, what is there to expect forgiveness from?

Although it might seem self apparent, it is definitely not. Many people go through the High Holidays, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, worrying about which synagogue they will attend, the price of the seats, who to invite over, what to eat and other pertinent details that pertain to the holidays. All of this transpires without reflecting on sin.

The purpose of these holidays is to reach an atonement for sin. But can we just come before G-d and merely say “forgive me” without specifying the transgression. Without acknowledgment of the sin (or sins) that was done, we can not expect forgiveness.

Why is this?

G-d is delighted to forgive our sins, but that is with the condition that we do sincerely regret sinning. We can not expect forgiveness from our sins if we are planning to continue sinning. Would you forgive someone who insulted you if they planned on continuing addressing you with insulting behavior? Would you forgive someone if they said that they think that they did something or other to you but they were not certain? If they do not think that they did you harm, what is there to forgive?

The first and foremost task to properly prepare for the holidays is to do some self reflection. Consider what actions were done that fell into the category of sin. Without itemizing the sin (or sins) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lose most of their meaning.

Once we come before the King of kings with regret over the sins and transgressions of the past, then we can expect forgiveness. But with out spending the time analyzing our improper deeds, speech and thoughts, what can we expect? We must be sincere in our reflections and in our regret. Just coming to the synagogue to hear the cantor sing or to hear the rabbi's speech may have a merit, but it is not the main point of the High Holidays.

There is a popular phrase in Hebrew: “Ain devar shalem k'lev shabor” which means, “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart”. To us, a sin is a sign of human imperfection and failing; a negative trait that is to be shunned. But to G-d, who is all perfect, He looks at a person who sins as human and a person who admits his sin as positive, and a person who both admits and regrets his sin as worthy. There is nothing as whole in the eyes of G-d as a person, who due to his sins is contrite and has a broken heart.


from the September 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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