Motivation and Repentance: A Thought for Yom Kippur

It had been a rough day, the fitting culmination of a rough week.  Come to think of it, the whole summer had been a rough one — well, you get the idea.

The point is that by the time my daughter and I reached the Riverdale apartment in which my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live, and where we were to spend Rosh Hashana, I was exhausted, and the holiday was only an hour away. I knew that it would take little effort  for me to go to shul for maariv (the evening service) since my son was quite willing to push me there in the wheel chair.  But even that minimal amount of effort seemed daunting

In previous years, I had always taken it for granted that I would go to shul for maariv on the first night of Rosh Hashana. It had never occurred to me to do otherwise.  But the physical challenges of Parkinson’s in combination with the ordinary — and sometimes not so ordinary — stresses of life have taken their toll. Using a wheel chair for any walk longer than a couple of blocks enables me to avoid being a prisoner of my disability, but it still leaves me with decisions where once there had been assumptions. Whether to go to shul on the first night of Rosh Hashana was one of those decisions.

As it turned out, my three-year-old grandson made the decision for me.  He decided that he wanted to go to shul sitting on Sabba Doug’s lap.  Since my son was willing to push the wheel chair with both of us in it, what self-respecting grandfather could say no?

Granted, that wasn’t the ideal mindset with which to recite the first prayers of the New Year.  Rather than going to shul to satisfy my grandson’s desire to ride there in my lap or because I too was enjoying the experience, would it not  have been better for me to go to shul out of a sense of halakhic obligation, or at least from some undefinable spiritual hunger?

My motivation for going to shul that night may not have been optimal, but how many of us can really be confident in the purity of our motives?  Don’t we all fulfill our religious obligations, at best, from a complex mixture of motivations, some clearly appropriate and some decidedly less so?

It has long struck me as odd that when we assemble in shul on Yom Kippur evening for the Kol Nidre service, the very first words we speak are a declaration that it is permissible for us to pray with sinners.  Whatever the technical reasons for beginning the service with this declaration, and notwithstanding its historical associations, it is a somewhat jarring way of beginning the prayers that will accompany the fast on the holiest day of the year.  If  our goal on Yom Kippur is to obtain God’s forgiveness, do we really want to begin by calling attention to the sinners in our midst?

Maybe we do — not because God needs to be reminded that there are sinners among us, but because we need to remind ourselves that we all fit into that category to some extent.  Even when we do the right thing, our motivations are often mixed at best.  Human beings are inherently flawed; that’s why teshuva  (repentance) is a never ending process.

On the holiest day of the year, the Jewish people stands before God as one, recognizing our faults but drawing strength from one another.  We long to hear once again God’s response to Moses: “I have forgiven according to your word.” (Numbers 14:20).  We know instinctively that we will fare better when we stand together — regardless of our motivation for being there.

May we and the entire people of Israel be inscribed and sealed for a year of life, health and peace.  An easy and meaningful fast to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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