Yom Kippur, literally the “Day of Atonement,” is a very special day in the Jewish calendar. It is truly a day unlike any other: a day of Rachamim BaDin, Mercy in Judgment. Today, we are Malachim; we neither eat nor drink. Today, we devote all of our time, energy, and efforts toward connecting to G-d. We spend our entire day in Shul davening to Hashem, beseeching Him for mercy, and begging to be forgiven for all of this past year’s sins and to be sealed in the Heavenly ledger for life, blessing, and peace in the coming year.
And yet, year after year, one cannot help but wonder how we can do it. How can we possibly stand in Shul on this day of forgiveness and atonement, of closeness and connection with G-d, look Him in the eye, as it were, and tell Him that we will not continue in our sinful ways? What Chutzpah! We know that we will mess up again in the future—we know it! We’re human! Even today, on the holiest day of the year, the day on which we mimic the angels, we’re still human. (Honestly, who among us, nowadays, sits on Shul on Yom Kippur and doesn’t once think to himself, “Gee, I wish I could’ve had breakfast this morning”?) How can we have the audacity to ask G-d for Rachamim, mercy?
In order to find an explanation, we may look to one of the day’s Haftarot. At Minchah on Yom Kippur, we read Sefer Yonah. One of the most well-known stories in all of Tanach, the story of Yonah is, at the same time, a somewhat troubling one. If we pay careful attention, we may notice that Yonah seems to be a man full of contradiction who is prone to irrational action and sudden change of heart. Sefer Yonah has the potential to leave its readers with an abundance of unanswered questions: How could Yonah, a Nevi Hashem, think it possible to run away from G-d? Why does he try so hard to disobey G-d, even going so far as to choose to be thrown into the sea rather than fulfill His command? Why does he suddenly choose to obey G-d once he is saved, and then become so distraught as to ask to die when his mission has finally been fulfilled? When we try to read Sefer Yonah with the perception that Yonah is constantly changing his mind and acting upon conflicting motives, many difficulties arise as to why certain events evoke particular reactions from Yonah, or why G-d deals with Yonah in a particular way. Though Yonah’s actions may seem at times strange, irrational, or even conflicting, the Sefer must be read with the mindset that all that Yonah does is done for one particular reason and motive. But what is this motive?
One interpretation (offered by TABC’s own Rav Yehuda Chanales) implores us to look at Yonah in an intriguing new light: Yonah’s driving motivation was really his unease at the very same question that now troubles us! Throughout Sefer Yonah, Yonah acts in protest of G-d’s attribute of Mercy, and, in particular, of His allowing Nineveih a chance to do Teshuvah and appeal to His mercy. Yonah is upset with Hashem’s Midat HaRachamim; he feels it degrades G-d’s Midat Emet to allow people to take advantage of second chances. As such, Yonah tries, confusedly but zealously, to protest Hashem’s exercising of mercy. This motive stays consistent through the end of the sefer, dictating the back-and-forth of action and reaction between Yonah and G-d throughout the rest of the Sefer, providing explanation for Yonah’s further actions and for how Hashem deals with him throughout all his experiences.
It is through looking at Hashem’s patient response to Yonah that we may find the answer to our question. Hashem responds to Yonah’s actions in a way that teaches him why the world needs Rachamim. Of course, nobody can fool G-d. Hashem is in total control of everything that happens, and there is a very good reason why He runs the world the way He does. What Yonah overlooks is that without Rachamim, there is no opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes; we, as readers, may notice that Yonah himself benefits throughout the Sefer from extraordinary Rachamim and patience from Hashem. Just as Hashem took such special patience and care to allow Yonah to have the opportunity to learn and to grow, He employs Midat HaRachamim in dealing with all the world in order to let all people have Bechirah Chofshit, to let all people make mistakes and learn from them. Sefer Yonah is about far more than “just” the power of Teshuvah; it is about the very essence of Teshuvah, even the essence of Bechirah Chofshit, free will, itself!
Thus, Hashem’s Rachamim is based on His will to allow second chances. But why does Hashem allow imperfection and second chances? The answer is at once simple and profound: it is because G-d does not want humans to be angels. Of course G-d knows that we are fallible, He knows that we make mistakes—that’s okay! G-d specifically wants us to have the opportunity to fail, so that we may subsequently repent, learn, and grow! Hashem runs the world with Rachamim because He wants to allow us to fall short, only so that we have the opportunity to grow beyond anything we could have attained without falling.
Let us take heart as we beseech Hashem for life, peace, and “Berachah Ad Beli Dai.” Let us remember that G-d is indeed Rachum VeChanun, merciful and forgiving. But most importantly, let us pledge wholeheartedly our commitment to Teshuvah, and to never giving up in our quests, both individual and communal, to become true Tzaddikim and Ovedei Hashem.
Though we may falter, we must never back down.