Are we perfect? Definitely not. We make mistakes, we choose poorly, and we may hurt others along the way. But perhaps our imperfection has significance in how we decide to deal with it.
The theme of this holiest day of the Jewish calendar is atonement. We atone for mistakes made in the past year, express sincere remorse, and pledge not to commit these things again. It is the culmination of the “cheshbon hanefesh,” the accounting of the soul, that the month of Elul and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah initiate.
There is another, related theme to the High Holidays that is a bit more grim – life and death. It is said that on Rosh Hashanah we are written in one of three books, the Book of Life, the Book of Death, or the one in between (an undecided one, of sorts) for the coming year. For those who are not inscribed in the Book of Life at that time, there are the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to right any wrongs and earn a place in the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur, one’s fate is “sealed” for the coming year. It is typically suggested to always assume that one is initially in the “in between” book, as we do not want to be so arrogant to think that we have no wrongs to right, nor do we want to think so lowly of ourselves as to willingly condemn ourselves to death. Teshuvah (repentance) is always possible, no matter what the transgression.
As I mentioned before, we are not expected to be perfect, but to make a genuine attempt at doing the right thing or correcting our wrongs. The process of reflecting on the past year, acknowledging where we have caused harm or chosen poorly, and then making ammends or asking / offering forgiveness is what moves us forward.
On that note, I would like to offer one of my favorite quotes. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is famously quoted as saying,
If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?
For me this becomes a daily “cheshbon hanefesh” by constantly reminding me to keep progressing and to “earn” my “tomorrow” by properly using my “today.” Although I do not firmly ascribe to the “reward and punishment” aspects of religion and morality, I recognize the symbolic significance that can be drawn from these teachings and applied to one’s outlook on life.
I pledge to make a sincere attempt to “earn a tomorrow” everyday by constantly making progress in my life through treating others fairly, making more environmentally sustainable choices, continuing to learn and improving my education, and helping the broader community in any way I can find. Will you join me?
G’mar Chatima Tova!