Yom Kippur – 5777

The Road to Change is Easy

Every Jew’s heart quivers as Yom Kippur approaches. This great and sacred day has tremendous historic roots: thousands of years of repentance and atonement, prayer and pleas for mercy, forgiveness and purity.
In the flow of life all year we do many things we shouldn’t and wish we hadn’t done. When we arrive at this holy day and do our own introspection, we wish to improve our ways and atone for our sins. And then we face ourselves and wonder: Can one actually change? Is it possible at once to change deeply-rooted habits and become a better and more moral person?

The source of this doubt is the sense that our bad habits have, to a certain extent, taken control of us and turned us into worse people. In other words, we feel as though our soul is somewhat “ruined” and that in order to repair the damage we would have to work very hard.
But is this really so? Can sins and negative behaviors take control of us?
Chazal told that when the Romans conquered Jerusalem, before they destroyed the Second Temple, they arrived at the Temple and wanted to take the magnificent ritual objects that were in it. At first, they did not dare enter. Even they were in awe of the incredible holiness of the Temple. Because of this, they looked for someone who would “break the ice” and so they declared: Anyone who goes in and takes out any object – whatever he removes will be his. A Jew by the name of Yosef Mashita stood up and said: I’m going in.
Yosef entered the Temple and returned with the great golden menorah. The Romans saw the magnificent menorah, wanted it, and said: That is a menorah suitable for a hall of kings and not suitable for a simple person to use. Go back in and what you take out this second time will be yours. Yosef answered: Is it not enough that I angered my Creator once? I will not enter! The Roman tried to persuade him and offered him three years’ worth of taxes, but he stubbornly refused. The Romans lay him down on the workmen’s table and sawed his body, and Yosef just kept screaming: Is it not enough that I angered my Creator once?!
This horrible story leads us to a great question: This lowly person agreed because of greed to be a tool in the hands of the conquerors and defile the sacred Temple by committing an act that even the Romans did not dare to do. How can such a person suddenly become so righteous one moment later to the point of being willing to suffer intolerable torture so that he does not anger his Creator? How did such a turnabout occur?
In Megillat Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) it says:
Do not look upon me [disdainfully] because I am swarthy, for the sun has gazed upon me (Song of Songs 1, 6)
Am Yisrael asks that its swarthiness that took hold on it due to sins of the past not be looked upon since it was almost like a suntan – external coloring and not the kind that trickled inside.
This verse’s deep meaning is that G-d created man at a high level, as it says “for in the image of God He made man” (Breishit 9, 6). Meaning, man was created in the image of G-d and therefore every man at his roots strives and yearns for endless goodness. Even if he commits sins and crimes, he will always have a place inside himself which is good and sacred.
This is the story of Yosef Mashita. When the inner, good place inside even such a lowly man began to “burn” sevenfold after he entered the Temple and experienced the holiness, he could no longer extinguish it even when his body was being cut by saws. Because the difference between the most terrible of sins and complete repentance is a hair’s breadth.
We, thank G-d, are not sinners like Yosef Mashita. And despite this we sometimes feel helpless in the face of bad habits we have adopted and acts we wish to atone for and erase completely from our lives.
On Yom Kippur, we enter the Holy of Holies. And then all we need to remind ourselves of continuously is that we only have to ignite that spark of love for our Creator and love of what is good for that slight darkness that covers us from our sins to peel away. And then we can transcend to higher levels of goodness and bring great satisfaction to our Creator.

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