More than anything else, Yom Kippur
is a lesson in humility, because it not only demands that we ask for forgiveness, it also forces us to recognize that we make mistakes and that we are not as righteous as we would like to believe.
This demand is painful because it forces us to doubt ourselves. Admitting that we made a mistake is not our first instinct. Most of the time we prefer to walk around in this world with a high opinion of ourselves and believe that we are right and everyone else is wrong.
But God knows that He alone should be in charge of justice, because humans will eventually abuse it. Most of the terrible events in history occurred because people were certain they were right.
So once a year God reminds us that most murders, wars and injustices were committed by people who told themselves they were fighting for justice.
It may seem impossible in our eyes, but our worst enemies are also convinced that they are right. The human filth that surrounds us – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran,
jihadists, al-Qaeda – if you hook them up to a polygraph and ask them if they are right, the needle won't move when they say "yes."
And when asked why they are so certain they are right, this despicable bunch will reply, "Because God told us." Or as we say in the Middle East: "My God is better than your God."
There is no point in telling them they are wrong and that they are merely trying to justify atrocious acts, but after thousands of years of blood and Qassam rocket fire it is hard to blame God for not trusting mankind. We have an innate inclination do bad things in his name.
Even within Israel we have dozens of versions of God: The god of the Ashkenaz ultra-Orthodox, the god of the hasidim, the god of the Lithuanians (who do not consider the Hhsidim to be Jews), the god of those who wear knitted kippas, the god of those who wear big white kippas and the god of those who wear their small kippas on the side of their heads.; there is the god of that hill in Samaria which must not be evacuated; the god of the Military Rabbinate, which buries Russian soldiers outside the cemetery's grounds; the god of the Reformist women who want to pray at the Kotel wrapped in a tallit and the god of the religious Jews who want to throw stones at these women.
Shall I continue? There is the god of those who kiss mezuzot and those who pray at the tombs of the righteous; the god of the traditionalists who go to a movie immediately after Kiddush; the god of the 'Taliban mothers' and
the god of Beitar Jerusalem
fans, who will defeat the god of Maccabi Haifa's supporters; there is the god of those who refuse to admit Sephardic girls to their schools because God (what God?) told them personally that is was okay to do so.
These groups are so different from one another it is sometimes hard to believe they are all part of the same nation, the same book, the same set of laws. The only thing they have in common is that they are all convinced their version is the correct one and that everyone else is talking nonsense.
This exaggerated pride is the reason we need Yom Kippur so much. So that all those who told themselves that only they understand God will have to ask for forgiveness.
Because the God of Israel decided to save us from our own weaknesses and gave us Judaism's holiest day to keep us from becoming the victims of our own hubris. He gave us one day a year on which we must stop everything and remind ourselves that no one is allowed to speak in His name.
God commanded us to put everything on hold and look at ourselves with courage and honesty. Then you will realize that I did not say any of those things, you did, He said. This is not my justice, but your self-righteousness. This is not a decree from the heavens, but your need to feel superior to others.
I will not allow you to use me, God said, to justify racism and sanction violence or use me as an excuse to unleash your darkest instincts.
Judaism is a religion of choice. That is part of its moral fortitude. But there is no choice without doubt. There is no choice without trying to understand the other side's position as well. The ability to ask for forgiveness is also the ability to accept the other; to accept the fact that he is different and has his own justice. We ask forgiveness not only for our bad deeds, but for the fact that at the time we committed them we did not realize they were bad.
Why do we need a special day in order to look inward? Because normally we don't. Because it is easier to tell yourself that you are right; that they don't understand; that God told you.
But God did not tell you anything. Instead he sent us to synagogue on this day so that we will torture our souls with the question "Where did we go wrong?"
As I analyze this decree I am filled with respect for the divine wisdom. Because people who ask themselves, "Where did I go wrong?" are inherently better than those who tell themselves, "I am right!"