Once the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his father-in-law, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, were playing chess. As the story goes, the Rebbe, out of respect for his saintly father-in-law, was letting him win. R. Yosef Yitzchak quickly noticed this and said to the Rebbe, “When you are in the game, you must play to win!”
We live the entire year in the game. There are rules, obstacles, strategies. Sometimes we’re winning: confident, in control, tackling every challenge in stride. Other times it seems, no matter what we do, we are fighting a losing battle. We try to get up, only to be shoved back down again.
But whatever happens, and no matter how we feel, in this unpredictable game of life, we have no choice but to take the game seriously—and give it all we’ve got.
As Jews, our “rule book” is the Torah and its 613 mitzvot. The entire year, we attempt to fulfill our divine mission. Yet we are constantly fighting our evil inclination, the ultimate defense, which devises clever ways to lure us into the wrong choices and leads us to make poor decisions that threaten to weaken our relationship with G‑d. This force within us is so powerful that we might feel as though there is no way we can pull ourselves out of the hole we have dug ourselves into. We have messed up, time and time again. We are too far. There is no hope . . .
That’s the reality . . . from our perspective. From G‑d’s perspective, things look a bit different: the infinite G‑d relates to us above the rules of the game. When it comes to our relationship with G‑d, we can look up from the board and say, “G‑d, I’m losing, badly. There’s no way out of this. Can we clear the board and start over again?” And the answer from G‑d is a resounding “Yes.”
This is the idea of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” but its literal meaning is “return.” Teshuvah is the act of returning to our essence, to who we truly are when we look up from the game and strip ourselves of any external definitions. And who we are is a soul that is a part of G‑d.
Our ability to do teshuvah is not limited to Yom Kippur. We can do teshuvah throughout the year. On a basic level, it’s a three-step process: we regret what we have done, articulate it aloud, and then resolve to act differently the next time around. When we do this with true humility and sincerity, G‑d forgives us and dissolves any negative consequences that might have resulted from our transgressions.
But if we can do teshuvah any day of the year, then what makes the day of Yom Kippur different from any other day?
Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we are able to tap into the deepest level of our soul, which is truly one with G‑d. A parent, when he looks at his child, sees beyond the child’s talents, personality and behavior. He sees part of his very self. Our connection with G‑d is like that bond between parent and child—so deep, so essential, that it can never be severed. On Yom Kippur we reveal the deepest aspect of our relationship with Him, which is beyond any thought, speech, action, emotion, disposition, experience, environment, persona . . . On Yom Kippur, G‑d looks at us and sees part of Himself, the pure G‑dly soul of a Jew that can never, ever be damaged or blemished. In the face of such a strong revelation of our essence, not only are we forgiven, but any negative actions we have done become completely irrelevant. A new dimension of reality is revealed—one in which our wrongdoings never even occurred. In that moment, the board is wiped clean. We are given the chance to start anew.
In Psalm 27, which many have the custom of saying from the first day of the month of Elul until the end of Sukkot, King David writes, “To you, G‑d, my heart says, ‘Seek my face’; Your face, G‑d, I seek.” The word for “face” is panim, which has the same root as the word penimi, “internal.” In this prayer, we ask G‑d to see our “face,” the innermost core and depth of who we are. Beyond actions. Beyond definitions. And, in turn, we seek G‑d—G‑d Himself—beyond His omnipotence, beyond His will, beyond the way He manifests in the world, even beyond His unlimitedness. On Yom Kippur, we meet G‑d’s Essence. Face to face.
May this powerful energy of Yom Kippur propel us into the coming year with a renewed vitality and sense of purpose. And may we have a year of physical and spiritual victory, while realizing that true reality transcends all of the rules of the game.