A New Year, A New Person

yom kippur


By Rabbi Dov Greenberg


One day a boy walked into a pharmacy and asked to use the phone. He dialed a number and said, “Mr. Brown, do you need a boy to do your gardening?”

He listened and then said, “Oh, you have a boy. Well, is he good? Oh, he is. Thank you.”

When the boy hung up, the pharmacist said, “Sorry you didn’t get the job, son.”

“Oh, no, sir,” said the boy. “I’ve got the job.”

The pharmacist said, “But weren’t you just on the phone asking for work?”

“No sir,” the boy answered, “I work for Mr. Brown. I was just checking up on myself!”

To be really good, it is not enough to simply do our work, we also must check up on ourselves. That is what we do during the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur.

The confessional prayer does not deal with matters that are subject to litigation. There is no court of law to prosecute, no witnesses to be summoned, except for ourselves. The confessional focuses instead on our inner life—on jealousy, arrogance, hatred, stinginess, gossip, lust and more. With no external authority policing these sins, we have only Yom Kippur to run an internal checkup on ourselves.   

This internal review is central to Judaism. Some think that Judaism is concerned only with outward acts, but that is not so. Judaism is concerned not only with conduct but also with character, not just with Mitzvot we do but also with the kind of person we become.

To be really good, it is not enough to do work, we also must check up on ourselves.

The Israeli Nobel laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon shared a story that illustrates this point through the actions of a kind rabbi and his etrog. Jewish law ordains that a Jew acquire an etrog, or citron, before the holiday of Sukkot, and recite a blessing over it throughout the festival. Agnon recalled that shortly before Sukkot, he ran into one of his neighbors, an elderly rabbi from Russia, at a store that sold etrogim. The rabbi told Agnon that since Jewish law regards it as valuable to acquire a beautiful etrog, he was willing to spend a large sum in order to purchase this ritual object, notwithstanding his limited means.

Agnon was therefore surprised when, a day later, the holiday began and the rabbi did not take out his etrog during the service. Perplexed, he asked him where the beautiful etrog was. The rabbi relayed the following incident:

I awoke early and prepared to recite the blessing over the etrog in my sukkah on my balcony. As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family and our balconies adjoin. As you also know, our neighbor is a short-tempered man. Often he shouts at his children. I have spoken to him many times about his harshness, but to little avail.

As I stood in the sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the etrog, I heard a child weeping on the next balcony. It was a little girl, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she, too, had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s etrog, because its fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the etrog from its protective box to look at it. Unfortunately, she accidentally dropped the etrog on the stone floor, damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use. She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely, hence the frightened tears.

I comforted her, and then I took my etrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged one in its place. I told her to tell her father that I insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful etrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by doing so.

Agnon concludes, “His damaged, bruised, ritually unusable etrog was the most beautiful etrog I have ever seen.” It was not kosher, but the rabbi’s character certainly was. Judaism had infused his deeds and his heart.

As we recite confessional prayer we review the condition of our heart. Though it may be intimidating, we can abandon our usual defenses knowing that G-d loves, forgives and never gives up on us.

Of all the challenges that we undertake in our lives, changing ourselves may be the most difficult. This is the work and the opportunity of Yom Kippur.