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Judaism: Rabbi Kook on Yom Kippur: Attaining Complete Teshuva

Why do we introduce the Yom Kippur viduy (confessional prayer) by acknowledging God's infinite knowledge? What does His grasp of the hidden mysteries of the universe have to do with our struggle for repentance and atonement?
Published: Thursday, September 23, 2004 7:10 PM


"You know the mysteries of the universe and the hidden secrets of every living soul. You search the innermost chambers of the conscience and the heart. Nothing escapes You, nothing is hidden from Your sight. Therefore, may it be Your will, to forgive all our sins." (From the Yom Kippur liturgy)

Why do we introduce the Yom Kippur viduy (confessional prayer) by acknowledging God's infinite knowledge? What does His grasp of the hidden mysteries of the universe have to do with our struggle for repentance and atonement?

Three Stages of Teshuva

It is well-known that there are three parts to the process of teshuva (repentance). First, we should regret past failings. Second, we must cease this behavior, abandoning the improper conduct. And third, we accept upon ourselves not to repeat our error in the future.

Yet, as we shall shortly demonstrate, complete performance of the three stages of teshuva entails great and profound knowledge. In fact, "teshuva shleima", perfect repentance, requires a level of knowledge beyond the capabilities of the human mind.

Regretting the Past

For example, only when we are fully aware of the seriousness of our actions can we truly feel remorse over our past failings. The esoteric teachings of the Torah tell us that our actions can have an impact on the highest spiritual realms. The more we are aware of the damage caused by our wrongdoing, the greater will be our sense of regret. Therefore, the request for repentance follows the request for knowledge in the daily Amida prayer. Certainly, the one most aware of the significance and impact of our negative deeds is the One Who created the universe and all of the spiritual worlds.

Abandoning Faulty Behavior

The same is true with the second stage of teshuva. In order to fully cease the improper conduct, we need to completely remove this weakness or failing from our thoughts and desires. Yet, we do not have such mastery over our inner spirits that we are able to discern all that resides in the depths of the heart. One may think that he has already purified himself from a particular vice, yet the disease is still lodged within; and he will be unable to withstand a future reawakening of this desire. Therefore, the mystics decreed various forms of self-affliction that they perceived in their wisdom assist in purifying the depths of the soul. Of course, the only one to truly know the inner ways of the spirit is the Creator of the human soul.

Acceptance for the Future

The final step, acceptance to eschew the wrongdoing in the future, means that we resolve not to repeat our error, no matter what the situation. We accept that even under circumstances of duress, or when our honor is at stake, and so on, we will nonetheless maintain our guard. Again, a full acceptance for the future implies knowledge and awareness of future events and their repercussions - knowledge that is beyond us. Only God knows the future.

So, how can we aspire towards true teshuva, when the essential stages of the teshuva process require knowledge that is beyond our limited abilities?

God Accepts our Limitations

God graciously accepts the little we are able to achieve as if it were much. We ask that those measures of regret, change and acceptance for the future that we are capable of, even though they are severely limited by our intellectual capabilities, be combined with God's infinite knowledge. For if we were able to fully recognize these matters in their true dimensions, they would appear in our minds and be felt in our hearts with all of their intensity and depth, in our efforts to better ourselves.

This, then, is the meaning of the Yom Kippur prayer:

"You know the mysteries of the universe." You know the true measure of our misdeeds and how much we should really regret them. "And the hidden secrets of every living soul" - that we are unable to fulfill our obligation with the remorse that we are capable of feeling.

"You search the innermost chambers of the conscience and the heart." You know that, deep within us, there still resides some of the ailment of wrongdoing. You know to what degree we need to purify ourselves of the faulty trait. You know that we have not truly achieved our goal of conquering it.

"Nothing escapes You, nothing is hidden from Your sight." You know all future events that may come to pass; situations that may tempt us, circumstances that we may not succeed in overcoming.

Nonetheless, since we can perform the stages of teshuva only according to our meager capabilities, our prayer continues, "May it be Your will, to forgive all of our sins." Then we may reach the level of "complete repentance before You" - a teshuva that is complete with Your infinite knowledge.

[Based on Olat Riyya vol. II, p. 353]