All the days we are blessed with are special, but some are more special than others. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance or Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. The first section of the Schulchan Aruch, known as the Orah Hayim (Manner of Life), page 603, concerning Rosh Hashanah speaks of the intensification of our religious practices during these days. For example, it notes one should become more scrupulous about eating bread made by Jews, even if one is generally lax in this regard. In our community, this concept and ones like it are not the norm. Whatever the level of our observance, we can and should make a concentrated effort to increase it a notch.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) notes that the Ten Days are a time to scrupulously examine one’s deeds, adding that we should work even harder on examining deeds which were only possibly wrong. After all, when one is certain that s/he has misbehaved, regret comes effortlessly. In the Temple our ancestors brought a chattat (a kid or lamb) sin offering for certain sins, but brought a more expensive asham (a ram) offering for possible guilt. This ruling seems to be counterintuitive; you would expect to pay a steeper price for certain misdeeds than for only possible misdeeds. What is going on here?
It seems to me that the halakhah, Jewish Law, is instructing us to be especially attentive to the grey areas of decision making. Stealing is wrong. While some people steal, most of us would be appalled to find ourselves in possession of something taken without permission from its owner. In fact, for such clear-cut questions, it does not even require significant effort to do the right thing. In addition, should we discover that we have truly stolen, it is obvious what we must do—confess, apologize, return the item, and pay any damages.
Ambiguity, however, is much harder to handle. Many of our decisions are defensible without being right. Do we stick with our rationalizations, or do we do the hard work of reconsidering our deeds? Questioning our ambiguous errors is no fun, and we often don’t have the energy for it. The New York Times Magazine ran an outstanding article last August by John Tierney entitled, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” It discussed the great mental energy required to make decisions and the decline in judgment as our energy gets depleted.
When we think back on the past year, it may be relatively simple to identify a few big mistakes that we made, regret, and have resolved to repair. The more difficult task, however, is to discern those moments of carelessness, haste, and inattentiveness when we caused damage without intention, and perhaps, even without awareness. Rabbi Isserles is guiding us to focus on these morally ambiguous behaviors during the Ten Days and to try to make all of our deeds more intentional and more constructive.
The Chofetz Chaim wrote in the Mishnah B’rurah, his seminal commentary on The Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayim), a suggested methodology for how to pace ourselves for this daunting task. While there are ten days of repentance, seven of them are in the middle between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He recommends using each of these days to repent for the deeds of one day of the week throughout our lives. Think about Sundays, the first day. What are the mitzvot that we do, and what things could we improve upon during our typical Sundays? We continue in the same fashion for each day. By pacing ourselves through the Ten Days of Repentance we can accomplish a great deal, remembering and repairing not only the intentional damage that we have wrought, but also rethinking the sketchy or questionable moments when we could have and should have done better.
It is a privilege to begin another year together with all of you; I look forward to many more good days of Torah, tefillah (prayer), mitzvot, and maasim tovim (good deeds) in 5773. May your prayers be sweet in your mouth, and may they be accepted with favor by the Holy Blessed One.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah (To a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year),
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham