Why the Act of Being Sorry Tops Everything



A story is told about a teenager from a secular American family who, after a number of years of living in Israel, decided to become observant. Although the family had been living there for nearly five years, the boy's mother still prepared a stuffed-turkey dinner for Thanksgiving.

Wanting to honor his parents, as well as keep the laws of the Torah, our enthusiastic ba'al teshuvah approached his Mea Shearim-trained, 10th-generation Jerusalemite Rebbe: "I'm sorry," the boy stammered "but am I required to recite the ya'ale ve'yavo prayer on Thanksgiving if I am celebrating it with my family?"

The Rebbe looked confused. "What is Thanksgiving?" he asked. The young man decided to seek his answer elsewhere. A government minister who lived in his town was arriving home from the Knesset. Our student asked: "Do observant Jews say ya'ale ve'yavo on Thanksgiving?' The minister, scratching his forehead, asked, "What's 'I'm sorry'?"

For those of us in Israel, this story is too close to home to be amusing. It has been almost four years since we forced the pioneers of Gush Katif to leave their homes for the sake of peace — and all we got was Hamas, Al Qaeda, and thousands of homeless Israelis. And still, no Israeli politician has said, "I'm sorry."

Scandal and sexual corruption has been found in our most exalted offices, but no one admits his guilt.

Obviously, admission of guilt is painfully difficult. Only after the individual honestly faces his weaknesses can the process of repair begin. This emerges from this week's portion of Vayikra.

In biblical times, the individual would bring special sin offerings if he transgressed. Yet without individual repentance, it was not only meaningless, but considered an abomination by God.

After the Bible sets the stage by informing us that humans will sin, the very first sinner to be singled out is the High Priest himself. On the fast of the Yom Kippur, the first individual to confess his guilt and request purification is the High Priest.

The next in line is the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land. When the lawmakers sin in judgment, all of Israel automatically sins. The third person is the "prince" (nasi) — the president or prime minister. Whereas the Bible uses "if" about the transgression of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, it uses the word "when" regarding the prince/president/prime minister.

Why is the most powerful most likely to fall prey to sin? The Bible isn't clear, but it does say that he is the most vulnerable.

A fascinating difference in the behavior of two leaders is described in the book of Samuel. On a particular occasion, King Saul does not wait for Samuel to begin the public sacrifice, and ends up losing his kingdom. Yet King David commits adultery and then sends Bathsheba's husband to the front lines of battle to die, yet still lives to become the progenitor of the messianic line of the Davidic dynasty. Why?

Saul attempted to justify himself and blame the nation, whereas King David admitted his guilt, and wept before the prophet and God. Rashi links the Hebrew asher ("when" the nasi sins) to the Hebrew ashrei, or "fortunate": "Fortunate is the generation whose nasi puts his heart and mind towards seeking forgiveness for his sins."

Those in high office who are too high and mighty to seek forgiveness certainly ought be brought down a few notches by those very laws they seem to have haughtily disregarded.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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