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Written by Ayo Oppenheimer. Ayo is the founder and editor of Jewrotica.
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We are now completing the Aseret Yemai Teshuva, the ten-day period that marks the time between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. As we draw close to Yom Kippur, the New Year atmosphere of celebration yields to a more somber environment of reflection and introspection. This year, Yom Kippur falls on a Shabbat and is actually one of the only times when the prohibition against sex trumps our Double Mitzvah namesake, the command (or encouragement) to delight in sexual relations on the Sabbath.
See, on Yom Kippur, we hone our self control and put our worldly desires on hold by refraining from food, drink, sexual relations and other earthly comforts. This day represents a total shift in behavior for the Jewish people. Usually, we are encouraged to delight in this world and to sanctify it through blessing, not to be ascetic monks and altogether remove ourselves from the physical. But on this one day of the year, we channel our higher selves and strive to exist in a purely spiritual world. We either succeed in doing so or, at the very least, call attention to our human limitations and mortality as our tummies rumble during Neila.
Though instant gratification has its perks, sexual experiences that involve a degree of build-up and anticipation, of waiting and delay, are often more enjoyable and more powerful than jumping right into things. Yom Kippur is the same way.
That’s why we have not only the ten days of repentance to get ready for Yom Kippur, but an entire month! Many Jews around the world have spent the past month (called Elul) in deep reflection, acknowledging shortcomings, setting goals for the coming year and – perhaps most important of all – apologizing to those who they have wronged.
According to Jewish tradition, repenting to God isn’t good enough. You actually have to roll up your sleeves, track down that person you talked smack about earlier this year and deal with the awkwardness of sincerely apologizing for your misdeeds. Hopefully, the person will forgive you during your first ask, but you are required to ask the same person for forgiveness three times before being let off the hook!
There was once a man with a long-a** list of sins. Let’s call him Joe. Joe wasn’t the most honest of men and he’d had a really rough year to boot, making his indiscretions even worse. The summer came and went and, when Joe realized that the high holidays were approaching, he became distraught and decided that he would travel many towns over to meet with a great rebbe and ask him what to do.
Days passed and finally Joe arrived and was granted a meeting with the rebbe. Joe started to explain the cause for his despair.
“Rebbe, you don’t understand. I cheated people, I slandered – I don’t even see the point of doing teshuva. My bad behaviors have become a part of me, and I’m just too far into it to change for the better.”
The Rabbi paused and turned to the man. “Joe, I have a question for you. How far it is from east to west?”
Joe seemed perplexed. He didn’t understand the rabbi’s riddle, but he tried to answer the best that he could.
“Rebbe, I don’t know. I mean, it’s real far. Farther than I can think, farther than I can count”, Joe said.
“I’m not very good at math,” he confided.
The rebbe smiled kindly at Joe. “Joe, there is no distance from east to west. All you need to do is turn around.”
It’s a cute story with a real lesson. When there is a sincere desire to do teshuva and become a better person, there is no such thing as too far lost. One small step, the act of turning around and choosing a different direction, can change the entire course of our year and our lives.
I bless you to find that sincere desire, to take the first step toward being the person you want to be and to choose a path that will seal you and all those around you in the Book of Life.
With all my love, G’mar Chatima Tova!