In Pirkei Avot we learn: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three principles: Judgement, Truth and Peace.” In his classic Chasidic work, Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the Rebbe of Sochatchov explains that each of these principles correspond to one of the major Tishrei holidays: Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, as we refer to it as Yom Hadin. Sukkot corresponds to Shalom (as we refer to a Sukkat Shalom in many of our prayers). And Yom Kippur is the holiday of Emet, honesty. As Rabbi Borenstein explains it, Emet is something essential, substantial and everlasting. Yom Kippur is that opportunity to utilize the principle of Emet in order to tap into our essential beings. The role of Emet is crucial on Yom Kippur, yet being honest is easier said than done.
In his book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Prof. Dan Ariely argues that people are far less honest than they’d like to believe. He sums up the book’s hypothesis with what he calls the fudge factor theory: Our behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest and honorable people. On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and dishonesty as much as possible. The way we navigate these two contradictory drives is by lying and cheating- but only a little bit. We lie enough to benefit ourselves but not so much that it negatively impacts our self-image.
On Yom Kippur the stakes are high and the need for honesty is great. How do we ensure that we are up for the challenge and ready to take that first step: being honest?
Three keys emerge from the pasuk that is found in the Torah reading, and serves as a mantra throughout our Yom Kippur tefillot (Vayikra 16:30): כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ:
L’taher etchem- Yom Kippur is the opportunity to rejuvenate ourselves spiritually. Such rejuvenation is necessary, for we are more likely to be dishonest when we feel depleted. If we feel that being Jewish is a constant struggle, if Judaism causes us to experience ego depletion, then we are more likely to cut ourselves some slack and be less honest with ourselves. Yom Kippur is a mikvah in time, our opportunity to rejuvenate ourselves. It is through this rejuvenation that our egos can be restored and we can be more honest with ourselves.
Mikol Chatoteichem- We can only be forgiven for sins if we are willing to admit that we’ve made mistakes. And we all make mistakes: directed against our fellow human beings; our friends, our neighbors our spouse and children- and against God. Many times it was by accident. Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves as demanded from us on Yom Kippur, we will have to admit that some of our sins are not really accidental. We know better, or we should have known better or we should have done a better job anticipating the situation. In all these scenarios, we must be willing to be honest and admit our mistakes.
Lifnei Hashem. Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to be “before God”. This is not only a gift, but it is also an effective strategy for staying honest. A study showed that people asked to recall the Ten Commandments were less likely to cheat. In another experiment, people cheated less when they were asked to swear on the Bible, even when those people were self-declared atheists. Appreciating our special opportunity of being Lifnei Hashem on Yom Kippur is the third key to being honest today.
These three keys to being honest on Yom Kippur can and should be used all year long. We must avoid ego depletion, but when it happens we must seek ways to rejuvenate ourselves. We must avoid making excuses. And we must strive to develop a sense of Shiviti Hashem l’negdi Tamid, constantly being in the presence of the Almighty. Approaching God today with sincerity and honesty is an important step in making the most- and getting the most- out of Yom Kippur.