D‘var Torah: Teshuvah and Hope (Yom Kippur)
Rabbi Alan Iser, Adjunct Professor of Theology at St. Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and CY Faculty
Some years, during Elul and the Days of Awe, I feel melancholy. I think of all the ways in the previous year I had hoped and vowed to improve myself morally and I realize my process of
teshuvah has fallen short. Yom Kippur comes, and when I recite the Al Chet litany or think of all my own sins of omission and commission, I am reminded of the myth of Sisyphus. In this Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down the hill, every time he gets near the top. My teshuvah feels laborious and incomplete. While I might give a myself a “B+” for effort, my final grade is an Incomplete.
However, I am then reminded of the last Mishnah at the end of Masekhet Yoma (8:9), the tractate devoted to Yom Kippur: “Rabbi Akiva said, ‘Fortunate are you, Israel, before whom do you become pure and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it is said, ‘I will sprinkle pure water upon you and you shall be pure.'” Ezekiel 35:25) And it says: ‘O hope ( mikveh ) of Israel, O Lord’ (Jeremiah 17:1). Just as a mikveh (ritual bath) purifies the impure, so too does the Holy Blessed One purify Israel.” This homily of Rabbi Akiva is disconnected from the rest of the Mishnah and clearly reflects a desire to end the tractate on an upbeat note.
The Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, in commenting on this Mishnah (Sefat Emet 5641) notes that it tells us a great deal about the nature of Yom Kippur. For the mikveh to be efficacious for ritual purposes, one must be totally immersed. Even one hair outside the mikveh invalidates the immersion. To fully serve God requires total immersion in Godliness. Every Yom Kippur, for one day, a Jew can attain a small measure of this mikveh -like characteristic by enveloping themselves in the holiness and power of the day.
Even if we do not achieve complete teshuvah , Yom Kippur provides us with the potential to emerge from its holy waters, if not a totally new person, then at least with the potential to be a better version of ourself. Thanks to the catharsis and purification of God’s forgiveness, we have renewed hope.