The story is told of a person who came to shul on Yom Kippur,
and when it came time for vidui, the confession, the rabbi noticed that
he was banging with both his fists on his chest, like Tarzan. (Unlike the custom
we have to bang with one fist on the heart, as if to say, “You, my heart, have
led me to do these sins.”) The rabbi never saw such a thing. So, after the
services, he went over to the man and asked, "Where do you come from that they
have this strange custom of banging with both fists during vidui?" "No,
I’m not from any place special," he replied. "I just came late and I thought it
would be easier to catch up if I used both hands."
If we do not take time during the month of Elul
to prepare for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we may also find
ourselves banging with both fists, trying to catch up. Our preparation must
begin with the realization that HaShem will soon be judging us. But we
have to know what it is that we will be judged on…
The Mishna says that on Rosh HaShana“all
human beings pass before G-d k’bnei marom, like sheep, and they are all
looked upon with one gaze.” The Gemora gives three interpretations of
bnei marom. The first is that just like a shepherd passes his sheep before
him in single file, counting them one by one, and scrutinizing them, so too
every human being passes before G-d on Rosh HaShana, one by one. The
second interpretation: like ma’alot beit charom. This refers to a narrow
staircase going up the side of a mountain, where single file is the only way
that you can ascend. So too we pass before G-d on Rosh HaShana. The third
interpretation is k’chaylai Beis Dovid, like the soldiers of the House of
Dovid, who pass before the commanding officer for review in single file.
Each of these three analogies in the Gemora represents a
different aspect of G-d’s judgment. The first aspect is as sheep. A shepherd
counts his sheep to see if they are healthy, if there are any missing, if they
all belong to his flock. So, too, the first aspect of our judgment is that G-d
wants to see if we are still part of His flock. Every human being, Jew and
non-Jew alike, is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. As a
human being, he represents something G-dlike. G-d wants to see if that G-dly
brand is still evident on each person, whether we are still fit to be called
people created in His image. If we are healthy spiritually, and have learned to
control our animal desires, then we merit the appellation b’tzelem Elokim,
and are worthy to be counted among G-d’s flock.
Secondly, G-d does not only judge the person as he appears at present. He
also looks at what he was last year, to see if there has been any improvement.
Since a human being can never attain perfection, there is always room for
improvement, for striving for greater perfection in one’s life. We are referred
to in the prophets as holchim, walkers; whereas the angels are
called omdim, standers. A human being is a mehalech, a walker, a
This world is like a down escalator. If you stand still, you are carried
down; only if you walk do you move up. You cannot remain static in this world;
either you are going to be pulled down by your desires, or you are going up. The
second aspect of judgment focuses on the direction one has been moving in. It
corresponds to the staircase of ma’alot beit charom.
The third aspect is that of soldiers, each of whom has a special job to do in
the army.Likewise, each one of us was invested by G-d with unique
capabilities. Just as no two people look alike, and no two people have the same
fingerprints, no two people have the same talents and capabilities. G-d expects
us to use those talents in serving Him, in serving the Jewish people, making the
world a better place in which to live.
There are forty-four different sins mentioned in al chet all
during Yom Kippur. But in neilah we say a condensed version,
mentioning only the sin of stealing. The Chiddushei HaRim says that
stealing is a terrible sin. But why is that the one sin we mention at the end of
Yom Kippur? Are we all really thieves?
The answer is that HaShem has invested a lot in us. He gave us a body, a
soul, talents, capabilities. And He wants to see a return on his investment. We
look back over the year, and we see that we haven’t paid back what He’s given
us. In that sense, we’re all a bunch of robbers. We’ve stolen all those things
that HaShem has invested in us by not giving return on His investment, by not
developing our potential. So we confess, and we ask Him for another chance,
another year of life.