Midrash Tanchuma relates two intriguing encounters. One between G-d and Moses and the other between Elijah the Prophet and a fisherman. Both seem to provide insights on how to come clean on Yom Kippur.
G-d, you ruined everything
In an encounter with Moses, G-d chides him about the first time Moses failed to grasp the big picture. It happened during Moses’s very first foray into Israelite-Egyptian politics. At the very same time that Moses is pleading with Pharaoh to “Let my People go,” Pharaoh double crossed him. During their negotiations, unbeknownst to Moses, Pharaoh issued an edict that the Israelite slaves must now collect their own straw yet keep to the same production quota of bricks. Moses emerged from the Pharaohs palace as G-d’s chief negotiator about to pressure Pharaoh with a mighty plague. Only to find the Jewish People lamenting the misery that G-d’s new redeemer had brought about.
Moses was taken aback:
“…O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?” Exodus 5:22
G-d patiently explained to Moses that what looked like a setback was all part of the Divine plan. Everything happened for a reason. However, when G-d later suggested that Moses resume negotiations, Moses did not seem to have absorbed G-d’s message:
“…The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me, a man of impeded speech!’ Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made it worse for this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” Exodus 6:12-13
Of course, one of the many facets of Moses’s greatness is that he did not get stuck in these emotions. Throughout the ten plagues he never again equated the failure to change Pharaoh’s mind with the failure of G-d’s plan.
The second encounter is between Elijah the Prophet and a man who traps fish and birds for a livelihood.
G-d, it’s all your fault
While walking on his way, Elijah came across a man who started mocking and taunting him. Prophetically perceiving what might be the root cause of the man’s hostility, Elijah asked him:
“What will you answer on the day of judgement, since you have not studied any Torah?“
The man confidently responded that it was G-d’s fault for not providing him with the wisdom and understanding to grasp Torah. Elijah asked him how he makes his livelihood and the man responded that he traps birds and fish. Perhaps the man fell for Elijah’s trap. Asked about the source of his acumen and intellect to weave and spin flax into nets, catch fish and birds and earn a livelihood selling them, the man admitted that it was from G-d. When Elijah pointed out that the same reasoning and intelligence could have been harnessed for Torah study, the man broke down in tears. The fisherman realized that his rationalization for not studying Torah was an exercise in self-deception. He fabricated and lived by his own falsehoods.
Reexamining truths taken to the highest level
Perhaps the best example of those who not only reexamine truths but act on it are “Baalei Teshuva.” (those who return to Torah observance). They are able to question their lifestyle and religious beliefs and go wherever the truth takes them. Hence the famous approbation of Baalei Teshuva cited in the Talmud:
“Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where Baalei Teshuva stand, even the exceedingly righteous cannot stand,” Talmud Brachot 34B & Sanhedrin 99A
Yom Kippur. It’s more than repenting for our deeds.
The Talmud notes that Yom HaKippurim (as it’s called in the Bible) literally means “a day like the holiday of Purim.” On Purim we wear masks and costumes to signify that the world is not as it appears. The plot of the Book of Esther seems to have an internal logic. Only at it’s dramatic conclusion do all the pieces fall into place. And G-d, whose name does not appear in the story, is suddenly visible behind the curtain. The point is, that on Yom Kippur we have to look behind our own masks.
G-d wants to help us wipe our slates clean. Perhaps Midrash Tanchuma is suggesting a way for Yom Kippur to be an even more transformative experience. By taking the opportunity to question more than just our deeds. Rather our ability to perceive G-d as Moses did, and to reexamine our rationalizations, our attitudes, and our truths, like the fisherman.