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Rabbi Doniel Staum- Yom Kippur 5775 "It's an Emergency"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A number of years ago, on the Motzei Shabbos when we commenced reciting selichos, I went to shul a few minutes early. Selichos was scheduled to begin at 12:50 a.m. and I wanted to prepare for a few minutes beforehand. When I arrived at the shul however, the building was still locked. To my chagrin, I could not remember the numbers to the combination. While standing and waiting for someone else to arrive, an ambulance drove by the shul on the nearby street. Then at the corner it made an abrupt u-turn and hastily pulled into the shul’s driveway. I immediately became concerned that one of the boys in the Yeshiva, which rents space from the shul and has trailers behind the main building, had gotten hurt.

Two young men, clad in paramedic regalia and yarmulkes perched on their heads, jumped out. They asked me what time the recitation of selichos was scheduled to begin. After I told them they thanked me, jumped back in to the ambulance, and sped off. I smiled to myself with the newfound realization that indeed reciting selichos is an emergency.

3:00 a.m. The innkeeper was fast asleep in his bed with a fire burning peacefully in the stove warming the entire inn. Suddenly he was jolted out of his stupor by successive loud knocks on the door. At first the innkeeper tried to ignore the knocks, but it quickly became apparent that whoever was standing at the door was not about to leave. The innkeeper wrapped himself in his robe and grumpily made his way to the front door. He opened the door a mere crack, but it was enough to fill his bones with a cold numbness and a waft of the descending snow.

There standing at the door was a stranger holding his coat closed. “Hello there”, began the stranger in a loud unruly voice. “You know it is cold out here. I would really appreciate it if you could let me in and put me up for the rest of the night.” As the innkeeper pondered whether he should let the vagabond in, the man added, “Oh by the way, I don’t have any money, so you’ll be putting me up for free.”

One can easily imagine the invective that emerged from the innkeeper’s mouth just before he slammed the door shut in the man’s face. Could a person have more audacity than to wake someone up in the middle of the night and ask to be admitted for free?!

Yet, that seems to be exactly what we do. Toward the beginning of the selichos prayers, in which we petition G-d for forgiveness, we emphatically state: “Not with (the merit of) kindness and not with good deeds do we come before You; like the poor and impoverished do we knock on Your door. On Your door we knock O Merciful and Compassionate One, please do not return us empty handed from before You….for You are the One Who hearkens to prayer.” Our request seems absurd. If we admit that we have no merits how can we have the audacity to ask G-d to grant us forgiveness?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt’l explains that the analogy is wrong. If we want to offer a parable to illustrate our approaching G-d for forgiveness, the following parable is more accurate:

3:00 a.m. The innkeeper was fast asleep in his bed with a fire burning peacefully in the stove warming the entire inn. Suddenly he was jolted out of his stupor by successive loud knocks on the door. At first the innkeeper tried to ignore the knocks, but it quickly became apparent that whoever was standing at the door was not about to leave. The innkeeper wrapped himself in his robe and grumpily made his way to the front door. He opened the door a crack but it was enough to fill his bones with a cold numbness and a waft of the descending snow.

When the innkeeper looked out however, he saw nothing but the cold night. He was about to slam the door in disgust when he heard an anguished cry from below. He looked down to see a fellow lying face down in the snow. The man barely lifted his head above the ground before he screamed, “Please! Please! Help me! I am frostbitten and about to die!” Then the man’s face dropped back into the freezing snow and he lay there listlessly.

The innkeeper quickly called one of his children and together they lifted the freezing stranger into the house and onto the couch next to the fire. They tended to him for the next hour, covering him with blankets, and bringing him cup after cup of hot tea, until he had thawed and warmed.

It is obvious that prior to carrying the man into his home the innkeeper does not ask the frozen stranger how he will pay him for all his hospitality. When any person with a conscience sees another person in such a precarious state, he will do all he can to help without asking hesitation.

Rabbi Sorotzkin explained that when we approach G-d to supplicate for forgiveness, we are presenting ourselves in a state of emergency. We assert that we have no merits to count on and, therefore, we are in grave spiritual peril. Our only hope is to bang on G-d’s Door, as it were, and hope for an emergency response.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z’l explained the words that we recite in selichos, “וסלחת לעוננו כי רב הוא - Forgive our sins for they are numerous.” If they are so numerous why should G-d forgive them?

He explained, “Sometimes a person has to go to the hospital. But when he gets there they tell him the doctors are busy so he must wait. But what if he would say, ‘It’s an emergency; I cannot wait another minute!’ Then, they would rush him in right away. So I am saying to G-d, ‘I am an emergency! I cannot wait another minute!’ I am crying out, “Forgive our sins for they are numerous; they are too much to bear. G-d, please help me immediately!”

Why is it so important for us to view our situation as being so desperate? What is the point of being so involved and so harried with the whole process of repentance? Couldn’t we be forgiven without the whole arduous ordeal? Why can’t G-d allow bygones to be bygones and wipe our slates clean after we make a simple apology and declaration of regret?

At the root of most of our sins and iniquities are feelings of hubris and self-centeredness. When man feels that he is self sufficient he becomes sure of himself. When one becomes consumed with himself to a certain extent, he deifies himself. He begins to feel a sense of entitlement and he becomes smug with his accomplishments and successes.

On the other hand, when a person recognizes his vulnerability and fragility he is humbled. That sense of humility allows him to keep a proper perspective which, in turn, enables him to overcome his nature which pines for self-aggrandizement and hedonistic pursuits. The humble man never forgets that all of his triumphs and defeats are Divinely orchestrated.

The process of repentance is not simply about changing the past; indeed, bygones are bygones and we cannot alter what has already occurred. The process of repentance is more about changing how we view ourselves. It is about recapturing our focus and priorities which slip away in the daily grind throughout the year.

The Hallel prayers that are recited during the joyous holidays of the year are special prayers of thanksgiving and praise to G-d. It seems strange therefore, that so much of those prayers seem to be passionate pleas and petitions. “Please G-d, for I am Your servant; I am Your servant the son of Your maidservant; open my bonds”; “From the straits I call out to You, O G-d, You answer me with expansion, O G-d”; “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will come in them and I will thank G-d”; “Please G-d, save now!”; “Please G-d, make successful now!” etc. Such fervent supplications seem incongruous with the spirit of lauding and extolling G-d for His great Kindness, Salvation, and Mercy?

The truth however, is that there is no greater praise that one can relate to G-d than to acknowledge and admit his helplessness and that - “I need You in every facet of my life!” Only when one has come to that realization can he feel thankful for all the added favors and goodness that G-d has heaped upon him. But as long as one feels that he only needs to thank G-d for “the big stuff” then his hallel will be remiss and lacking.

It is surely not for G-d’s sake that we need to realize this. He is not effected one iota by anything we do. Rather, it is for us! Man can only keep his natural narcissism and arrogance in check by recognizing his fragility and feebleness.

This year, G-d helped us remember how vulnerable we are and how volatile our situation is, with the war and fragile state in Eretz Yisroel this past summer, and with growing Anti-Semitism in Europe and even in America. This year is also a shemitta (sabbatical) year, a time that our sages reveal is ripe for global change, for good or for better.[1] It is not hard for one to recognize how unstable and unsure our situation is. We are indeed in a state of emergency.

The gemara[2] teaches that any yearwhich is "poor" at the beginning will be rich and full of blessing at the end. Rashi explains that ‘poor’ refers to Klal Yisroel presenting themselves and beseeching mercy from G-d as if they were poor and impoverished. That is the attitude we must maintain throughout these serious days of mercy, introspection, and prayer. It is not a charade for it is indeed the truth. We have no one to turn to except our Father in Heaven.

The process of repentance is a process of humility, in which we reconnect ourselves with G-d and remind ourselves how much He loves us and awaits our success.

“Rabbi Akiva said: ‘Praiseworthy are you O Israel; before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it is written: “And I will sprinkle upon you waters of purification and you will be purified,” and also: “The mikveh (ritual bath) of Israel is Hashem.” Just as the mikveh purifies the impure, so does G-d purify Israel.”[3]

“Like the poor and impoverished do we knock on Your door”

“Forgive our sins for they are numerous”

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[1] Next year is a “Motzei Shemitte year”. Consider some of the “Motzei Shemitta years” during the past seventy-five years: 1939 - Start of WWII; 1967 - Six Day War; 1973 - Yom Kippur War; 1987 – the first intifada; 2001 (end of Shemitta) - attacks of September 11th; 2008 Stock market’s precipitous drop, Fear of Iran Nuclear capabilities began

[2] Rosh Hashnana 16b

[3] Mishna Yoma (8:9)

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