written by Rabbi Michael Friedland
We begin this sacred evening with a sad story. A woman came to a lawyer and tells him that she wants a divorce. The lawyer asks: Do you have grounds? She says: Yes, about half an acre. The lawyer asks again: No that’s not what I meant. Do you have a grudge? She answers him: No, we have a carport. The lawyer is getting frustrated at this point. “Let me try again”, he says trying to stay calm, “does he beat you up?” She says, “No, I get up before him every morning”. By now the lawyer has had it and says to her, Just tell me why do you want a divorce?” She looks at him pleadingly, Because he doesn’t understand me!”
Proper communication requires us to use our words carefully, clearly and kindly. Perhaps this is why we begin Yom Kippur with the chanting of Kol Nidre. For Kol Nidre acknowledges that we often express words during the year thoughtlessly. Most of the sins we profess in the longer vidui, which begins with the words, Al Het, are sins of speech. According to our Sages speech is what distinguishes the human being from all other creatures; yet this ability is also the cause of our most common failures. How we use our gift of language and speech is vital to the development of any healthy society.
Thus it is not surprising that according to Moses Maimonides and other medieval scholars the process of making teshuvah, of correcting our mistakes and transgressions, includes verbal confession. You have to say you are sorry and express remorse for what you have done and that you will not repeat the offense. What is surprising is that, according to Maimonides, the confession comes at the end of the process. “With regard to all the precepts in the Torah…whenever a person transgresses one of them, either willfully or unknowingly, and turns away from his sin it is his duty to confess before God…this means confess in words and this confession is a mitzvah.” Apologies and appeasement to any person one has wronged begins the teshuvah process but a further public articulation of what one has done wrong comes at the end of the process of teshuvah.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains this culminating confession is essential because words clarify feelings and thoughts. It is not enough to contemplate the desired change within, or even to act on one’s deliberations, speaking them makes our convictions real and creates witnesses to that effect.
Rabbi Soloveitchik also states“There are many things a man knows and thinks about that he not dare bring to his lips. Man is stubborn by nature and builds fences within himself sometimes refusing to acknowledge facts and denying harsh reality….Confession compels man …to admit facts as they really are to give clear expression to the truth. This, indeed, is a sacrifice, a breaking of the will, a tortuous negation of human nature.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik is suggesting something quite different and radical. Usually we understand that the inner feeling is foremost, and our words communicate those feelings. Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us that sometimes the words we speak lead. By articulating our remorse and shame, by detailing the wrongs we have done, our words help to break our stubborn will that resists taking responsibility for our transgressions.
This is not the only example where the articulation of certain phrases can impact our conscience for the better. Rabbi Jack Reimer suggests four phrases that we should learn to recite with great regularity. In so doing, these phrases will improve our lives and the lives of those around us immeasurably. They are:
I love you
How are you?
What do you need?
Gratitude is an essential character trait and to say “thank you” is the simplest form of expressing gratitude.
Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on the steps of the Temple Mount. He said "Blessed is He who has created all these people who serve my needs." For heused to say “what labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, thrashed the grain, he winnowed the chaff, selected the ears, ground them, sifted the flour, kneaded the dough. And only then did he eat. Whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. (Brachot 58a)
Ben Zoma specialized in the mitzvah of expressing gratitude. Viewing a large crowd of people inspired a sense of gratitude not just recognition of a faceless crowd. Seeing all of these people conjured up within him an appreciation for all that the world provided him so that he could indulge in his passion, the study of Torah.
A story is told of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He and a friend who was driving him to and from Reb Shlomo’s various concert venues, had stopped at a dingy restaurant presided over by a sour – looking proprietress and waitress. She put on their breakfast order of muffins and walked away. But after taking one bite of his muffin Shlomo summoned her back. "My most beautiful friend," he said to her gently are you by any chance the person who baked this muffin?"
"Yeah I am what about it?"
"I just wanted you to know that this is the most delicious muffin I've ever tasted in my life."
The woman give a hint of a smile, thanked him, and started to walk away. "And I also want you to know," Reb Shlomo continued, "it I've eaten muffins all over the world, but none came close to this one."
Again, the woman thanked him, but Reb Shlomo was not finished. "And mamesh, I have to thank you because I was so hungry, and you did me the greatest favor in the world by so expertly baking this muffin, which is surely a taste of the world–to–come."
By now the woman was smiling broadly. "Well, Gee, thanks a lot. It's very nice of you to say so. Most people never comment when the food is good; you only hear from them when they have a complaint."
Reb Shlomo's friend recalled with amazement and amusement the effects that Reb Shlomo's words had on the woman.
"I was taken aback. The woman was transformed. She was no longer sour-looking and unpleasant, she was beautiful. I learned many things from Reb Shlomo but most of all was how to say thank you."
Sometimes the issue is not about saying thank you but recognizing to whom we owe thanks. A popular story on the internet made that point: During my second month of college, wrote the story teller, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?"
Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade.
"Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say "hello".
So this year, let’s make a point of saying thank you. But also let’s make a point of recognizing all the different people in all areas that touch our lives who deserve a thank you.
We all know how important it is to say, I love you. But sometimes we don’t say it enough. Jack Reimer tells a story about a conversation that occurred at a Jewish funeral. The service was over and the only people left at the cemetery were the rabbi and the mourning husband. The husband remained at the grave for a long while; finally, the Rabbi approached him. "The service is long over, it's time for you to leave," he said. The man waved him away. "You don't understand. I loved my wife." "I am sure you did," said the Rabbi. "But you've been here a very long time. You should go now." Again the husband said, "you don't understand. I loved my wife." Once more the Rabbi urged him to leave. "But you don't understand," the man told him. I loved my wife – and once I almost told her.”
When Jack Riemer finished the story he added, "Can you imagine the sense of shame if you have to stand at a grave and bid farewell, and realize then what you did not say when you could have, when you should have, when there was still time? Can you imagine having to live the rest of your life with the knowledge that you loved someone, and that ‘once you almost told her’?"
Perhaps you think saying “I love you” is superfluous, my parent, child, spouse, friend knows - “Isn’t it obvious?”. Professor Reuven Kimelman reminds us that "whether or not you have properly fulfilled the commandment of "love your neighbor as yourself" is not evidenced by the feeling that you have done so, but by your neighbor's feeling that you love him or her."
Articulating one’s love proves crucial when, as in all relationships, arguments and disagreements arise. A disciple of the Baal Shem Tov came to him with a serious problem: “My son has drifted far away from Judaism. He leads an utterly dissolute life. What should I do?” The Baal Shem Tov’s response was as simple as it was unexpected: Tell him you love him even more.
Phrases of Gratitude and love should be part of our normal vocabulary as well as those which express concern, such as ‘How are you?’ or ‘What do you need?’. Nechama Leibowitz, the great Bible scholar, once remarked in class that too often the words, ‘How are you’ are meaningless. “What is the proper response to a person who asks, ‘How are you’? she asked. The class sat quietly not sure what to say. “The proper response to ‘How are you’ is ‘How are you’?” That is, the inquirer is not really interested in knowing the condition of his fellow and the fellow knows it.
For the words to mean something though, when we ask “How are you?”, or “What do you need?” make sure that the person has a chance to respond properly. Years ago a friend told me she was no longer going to ask people “how are you” because they don’t tell you. Instead she would ask people , ‘What did you have for lunch today?’ because then they would truly engage with her.
Jack Reimer shares a story by the Russian writer Turgenev:
"I was once walking in the street when a beggar stopped me. He was a frail old man, with inflamed eyes, blue chapped lips, filthy rough rags and disgusting sores. Oh how poverty had disfigured this repulsive creature!
He stretched out to me his red, swollen, filthy hand and whispered for alms. I reached into my pocket. But no wallet, no coins, no money did I find. I left them all at home.
The beggar waited, and his outstretched hand twitched and trembled slightly. Embarrassed and confused, I seized his hand and pressed it and I said: "Brother, don't be angry with me. I am sorry for I have nothing to give you. I left my wallet at home, brother." The beggar raised his bloodshot eyes to mine. His blue lips smiled and he returned to the pressure of my fingers. "Never mind," he stammered. "Thank you, thank you for this, for this too was a gift. No one ever called me brother before."
A kind word, an expression of concern can be just as important a gift as anything else.
In addition to Jack Reimer’s phrases, on this night of Yom Kippur let us add one more phrase - “I am sorry”. This is a truly challenging phrase to recite. This is because in the age of the celebrity apology, saying I’m sorry has been manipulated by Public relations firms. Just this week we had an example in town when Patrick Kane the hockey player said he was sorry. Not for yet another transgression fueled by his alcoholic binges, but for causing a distraction. Jewish tradition would not call his words an actual vidui, often translated as confession.
Rabbi Eliezer Diamond teaches that ‘confession’ is not a good or meaningful translation of the Hebrew term ‘vidui’. To confess is to reveal knowledge of a wrong that was unknown or to own up to the truth. But in the case of a vidui – God certainly is aware of the transgression and often the person wronged knows as well. Rabbi Diamond prefers that we translate the concept of vidui as ‘liberation’. For in making a vidui, we unburden ourselves from the weight of guilt and shame. And here is something else which brings us back to our first phrase – the root of the word vidui is the same as the root forTodah, thank you. When we are mitvadeh, or recite vidui, we express gratitude by liberating the burden of sin that was weighing us down.
This coming year let us make a habit of reciting these simple phrases:
I love you
how are you and what do you need
For if we become practiced in reciting them – to our spouses, to our parents, to our children, to our friends and neighbors, to the people we meet daily who provide innumerable services to for our welfare – the words will perform a great service for us, influencing the world around us and the world within us for a holier and kinder year ahead.