Friday, October 30, 2020

Caplan’s Log - Tuesday, September 22, 2020, 5:50 a.m., Edison, New Jersey

The first Selichot/Shacharit service of the morning at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison is about to begin. One of the gabbaim approaches me and asks me to lead the Selichot service this morning. I tell him that I would not be a good choice since my pace tends to lag the pace of the tzibbur, particularly during the selichot prayers. It would perhaps be a “tircha d’tzibur” (a burden on the congregation) to have me lead the service and delay everyone’s day. The gabbai nods his head and moves on to asks another congregant.

Like most of my fellow congregants, my mindset and feelings at this time of year are marked with a sense of ambivalence. The feelings are strong and can be both quite positive, as well as not so positive. The physical and emotional toll of meeting all the obligations and halachic requirements cannot be understated. Getting up ever-earlier in the morning during the “aseret yemei teshuva” is something that some may eschew. At the same time, the thought that we have an ideal opportunity to become closer to Hashem, and to make significant improvements in our religious and interpersonal lives, is nothing short of exhilarating.


I begin reciting the Selichot, attempting the superhuman feat of keeping up with the congregation while gaining some understanding of the words that I am reading. I am doing a somewhat poor job of accomplishing either goal. But I plan to gain a new insight or two that could benefit me in successfully pursuing the teshuva process.

I notice a prayer toward the beginning of the Selichot that suddenly captures my imagination:

כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים אָנוּ בְטוּחִים, וְעַל צִדְקוֹתֶיךָ אָנוּ נִשְׁעָנִים, וְלִסְלִיחוֹתֶיךָ אָנוּ מְקַוִּים, וְלִישׁוּעָתְךָ אָנוּ מְצַפִּים

“For in Your abundant mercy we trust, and on Your righteousness, we rely, and for Your pardon, we hope, and for Your deliverance, we yearn.”

This expression of our confidence that Hashem will lead us to a path of repentance and redemption I find quite compelling. It is an optimistic and uplifting message that our prayers and actions are embraced by Hashem and that Hashem will reciprocate our efforts. Moreover, it expresses that we have trust in Hashem and that Hashem has confidence in each of us.

I am quite certain that many have a jaded view of the teshuva process. At one time, I may have been in that camp. Saying “I’m sorry” and asking for forgiveness, knowing that one’s less than desirable behaviors are likely to recur, will undoubtedly not lead to a change in one’s character. That is why the prescribed method of teshuva is more intricate and more nuanced than merely uttering a dubious expression of remorse.

What evidence do we have that Hashem believes in our ability to do teshuva in a meaningful way? One needs to look no further than the story of Jonah and the people of Nineveh. Jonah went to great lengths to avoid delivering Hashem’s message of the need to repent. Regardless of Jonah’s reason for avoiding his mission, Hashem knew that the message would be heeded by the people, despite the fact their culture was steeped in wicked behavior.

There are many explanations of why the Book of Jonah is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. In my humble opinion, one of the most transparent and crucial themes of the Book of Jonah is that teshuva and self-improvement are objectives that human beings are more than capable of attaining.

I will submit that sincere and complete teshuva may not be a simple task. In Parshat Nitzavim, Moshe speaks of how the Jewish people would stray from Torah observance in the future. But, ultimately, they will find their way back to Hashem through teshuva:

וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־ה' אֱלֹקיךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ …בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁך

“And you will return to Hashem, your G-d, and you will listen to His voice...with all your heart and soul.”

…וְשָׁ֨ב ה' אֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ

“Then Hashem your G-d will bring back your exiles and He will have mercy upon you.”

Several versus later, Moshe provides a powerful message:

כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את…לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא

“For this commandment…is not in the Heavens”

Some commentators explain these words as referring to the proper performance of mitzvot generally not being out of our reach. Others interpret these verses as referring to the process of teshuva, which is described more fully in the prior section of the Torah. Moshe is exhorting the people to disabuse themselves of the notion that teshuva is unattainable. In either case, it is important to understand that while man has his limitations, with the help of Hashem he can achieve seemingly most formidable challenges.

What causes Moshe to be so certain that Bnei Yisroel will ultimately achieve teshuva? Because Hashem created us in His image (tzelem Elokim). Man was created as an imperfect being. Man is mortal, has free choice and is easily capable of straying. But the “tzelem Elokim” characteristic assures us that we are capable of approaching great heights in Torah study, Torah observance and moral conduct. Teshuva is the key ingredient to achieving these ideals. Teshuva is a process that helps us achieve heavenly ideals that can make us better servants of Hashem. Moreover, personal growth by means of teshuva can provide us with deep satisfaction and joy, well beyond that of one’s material gains and worldly pursuits.

An Approach to Neilah

I am aware that there are many who view Yom Kippur as a burden and perhaps their least favorite Jewish holiday because of the physical afflictions associated with the day. Moreover, a cynic could view Yom Kippur as a day when atonement is a “fait accompli.” And as the day wears on, a cynic could view the Neilah service, in essence, as a period of “running out the clock.” One could simply count down the minutes until yom tov is over when he can break the fast and return to normal, everyday life.

The Talmud (Yoma 85B) entertains the notion that perhaps atonement is achievable by virtue of the passing of the day of Yom Kippur. But the chachamim (wise men or majority) believe that the teshuva process is an indispensable component of achieving full atonement. Moreover, the Talmud insists that Yom Kippur cannot atone for infractions of man against his fellow man. The perpetrator must seek to appease his fellow man before atonement for the infraction can be effective.

When anyone asks me what is my favorite Jewish holiday, I immediately respond: “Yom Kippur, of course!” I find deep meaning in the entire 25-hour experience, but especially that last hour or so of the Neilah service. There is nothing more uplifting than praying and singing with the baal tefillah, our Mora D’Asra, Rabbi Steven Miodownik. The full participation of our congregation, united in our aspiration for atonement, enable me to gain a final burst of adrenaline. The service leads us all to the heights of kedusha and spiritual bliss. I view Yom Kippur as the day when we can progress in our religious and personal growth, that impel us to make life changes more characteristic of people created “b’tzelem Elokim.” No, we may never achieve are full potential. But Yom Kippur is an opportunity for us to lift ourselves a few rungs higher on that “ladder” of spiritual growth, helping us to make the most of this precious gift of life that Hashem has bestowed upon us in this world.

G’mar Chatima Tova!

Jonathan D. Caplan, a former Wall Street executive, is president and founder of wealth management firm, Caplan Capital Management, Inc. with offices in Highland Park and Hackensack. He holds a BA from Yeshiva University and an MBA in Finance from New York University Stern School of Business. You can find other recent investment articles by Jonathan at www.caplancapital.com/blog.