When I was a child I was lucky enough to learn Hebrew and Judaism in a way that I only understood when I became an adult. The Hebrew Language was so effective and imperceptible it was getting through the pores of my skin and reached my bones.
I always liked Hebrew and I always enjoyed singing. I had two Hebrew singing teachers and one Hebrew language teacher who were probably the reason I am here today in Utica as a Rabbi at Temple Beth El.
The Hebrew Language teacher was More Aaron Schwartz Z”L. In each class he made sure there were jokes and funny situations. The expressions he taught in Hebrew were drawn in cartoons I still remember.
The second—perhaps she should be the first—is Morah Batia. She taught me when I was in first and second grades. I still remember the handwritten Hebrew copies she gave us. I really do. She took me along the roads of the Hebrew Language singing and explaining meanings and expressions that are instilled in me to this day.
The third teacher was More Dudi Feuer. Coincidentally, Chazan recently retired from the Palm Beach Community after singing there for more than 30 years. He taught us songs with beautiful melodies that were really texts from the Tanakh (the Bible). Those texts are what we pray or study daily and I have them inside me indelibly.
One of those gorgeous songs’ text is from Tehilim 24 (Psalm 24):
“Mi yaaleh behar Adonai umi yakum bimkom kodsho? Neki chapayim ubar levav asher lo nasa lashav nafshi, velo nishba lemirma”—“Who will ascend upon the Lord’s mount and who will stand in His Holy Place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken My name in vain and has not sworn deceitfully.”
These psukim (verses) clearly indicate how we should behave: clean hands, pure heart, not use God’s name in vain and not swear to cover up a deception. But how do we achieve these goals in our daily lives when we are faced with situations that seem to force us to transgress or not always choose the best route?
We have a shield, a protection. It is precisely Yom Kippur.
Although it seems that it is a day in which we are on the edge between life and death and it is the Lord who is going to save us in His immense mercy, it is the day itself, through the action of repenting, that generates that salvation—of course, with the consent of the Lord.
Yom Kippur is generally translated as Day of Atonement. Actually, from the Torah, we extract a different meaning that I would like to share.
Hebrew words have a very strong bond established by what we call SHORESH or root. Although in various languages roots are what make and link words and meanings, in the Hebrew Language this is reflected in a much more consistent way. In the case of the word KIPPUR, the root or shoresh is K.P.R. (or CH.F.R. too):
“And God said to Noach: Make an ARK of gopher wood... veCHAFARTA otah—and you shall COAT IT inside and out with pitch—KOFER (a PROTECTIVE COATING).” Bereshit 6:14
To protect the ark from the mighty waters of the flood, Noach is commanded to coat the gopher wood with a protective covering. To describe this ‘coating procedure’, the Torah uses the verb “vechafarta” and the noun “kofer.” Note how both words stem from the same shoresh, root K.P.R./CH.P.R.
Later in Sefer Bereshit (in Parashat Vayishlach), when Yaakov Avinu sends a gift to appease his brother Esav, the Torah uses this same shoresh (k.p.r.) to describe yet another form of protection. Review Bereshit 32:20-21, acknowledging how Yaakov explains the reason for sending this gift: “Maybe I can APPEASE him—ACHAPERA panav—with this gift that I am sending...”
In this narrative, Yaakov is not asking Esav for forgiveness; rather, he hopes that this gift will deter Esau from attacking him. One could suggest that this gift is intended to PROTECT Yaakov from Esav’s anger.
In Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 21:30), the word “kofer” is used to describe a payment, which can be made in lieu of punishment. This payment can be understood as PROTECTION from the actual punishment that is due.
Similarly, in Bamidbar 35:31 we find the prohibition of accepting “kofer nefesh”—payment in lieu of capital punishment. In essence, this “ransom money” (if accepted) would have served as “protection” from the death penalty.
As we see, the action of lechaper, from which KIPPUR comes, is a kind of shield or covering for each one of us.
In the Mishkan (the portable Temple that our ancestors used in the desert), the kaporet was supposed to protect them from the Shechinah, the manifestation of God on the material Earth. Not because He was angry with them, but because His greatness and spirituality, or, perhaps, the energy that He emanated was too powerful to be borne by the People of Israel.
Today, we do not have to protect ourselves, unfortunately, from that manifestation. It no longer happens the way it used to. KIPPUR, or the shoresh K.P.R., continues to cover and protect us, probably from ourselves.
We have a hard time facing Teshuvah, moments of reflection and repentance. Even having daily, monthly and yearly moments to do them, most of us avoid them and go on with our lives without seeing what part we need to correct and improve. Who should we apologize to? What wrong have we done and must amend?
Yom Kippur with its prayers and moments of contrition confronts us with those facts that we abstain to face. Because of this, in this day we might even feel in a dark mood.
One of the strongest prayers, perhaps, is Al Chet: “For the mistakes we have made before you…” It lists various situations in which we could have been wrong. I have counted each year how many of them I saw myself involved in and promised to reduce them for the following year.
Today, I would like to propose an activity to be done before, during and after Yom Kippur. Following the example of my early childhood teachers, I suggest we take a more pleasant path, focusing on the good ways in which we are already changing and on the things that we have been positively doing.
Let us make a list of those things that we have probably done correctly. It is an affirmative look at VIDUI TZIBURI, the public confession we make on Yom Kippur with Al Chet. I have done my list. Yours might be different and you can add or take away items as you see fit. If you add to it, please, send it to me so I can include your additions it for next year.
It can help you gain momentum to see what you are good at, once you are clear on how good you are or what you have done. Perhaps for the next Yom Kippur, there will be less AL CHET and more of those that will make this list longer.
Gmar Chatima! Tovah!
My personal vidui list
For the good we have done before You and those around us helping those who want to be helped.
For the good we have done before You and those around us doing the best I can in my duties.
For the good we have done before You and those around us being considerate of others.
For the good we have done before You and those around us trying to take care of the planet.
For the good we have done before You and those around us defending those who cannot defend themselves.
For the good we have done before You and those around us being considerate of the needs of others.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by being attentive to our families and loved ones.
For the good we have done before You and those around us, helping whenever we were asked to do so, even lacking the energy to do so or in a situation of discomfort.
For the good we have done before You and those around us trying to put up with people who are intolerable to us.
For the good we have done before You and those around us trying not to offend.
For the good we have done before You and those around us trying to understand the other.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by caring for those we love.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by helping to unite feuding friends.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by providing kindness around us.
For the good we have done before You and those around us treating people patiently.
For the good we have done before You and those around us giving love, affection and dedication.
For the good we have done before You and those around us working hard.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by approaching people who need support or company.
For the good we have done before You and those around us being empathic with others.
For the good we have done before You and those around us helping the needy.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by acting justly.
For the good we have done before You and those around us by strengthening family relationships.