One of the most remarkable advantages that organisms have over machines is their ability to detect their own faults and repair them. It’s also the noblest feature of a human being. To Jews, it’s such a precious act, we have a day set aside for self repair—the most special, unique day of the year, Yom Kippur.

So how does Yom Kippur work?

That’s a crucial question, because if we can find an answer, we can harness it for every sort of human rehabilitation. We may even find some key to moral and psychological health—upon which a great deal of physical health rests.

A good place to turn for some clues is the Talmud, where every vital topic is debated, including this one. But the Talmud presents opinions in the most economical terms. Every statement is a gold mine, and it’s left to us to dig for the gold.

So here’s the debate:1 The most authoritative sage of his time, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, president of the supreme court and redactor of the Mishnah, states: “On every crime in the Torah, whether a person repents or does not repent, the day of Yom Kippur atones.”2

The majority of the rabbis, however, disagree: “The day of Yom Kippur atones for those who repent. It does not atone for those who do not repent.”3

Here’s the first step in digging: Look for the consensus of the two opinions. It’s apparent from their words that both agree that “the day of Yom Kippur” is the effective agent here. It’s the day that atones—not the person. The majority view doesn’t deny that—they only qualify that the day can’t provide repair without your cooperation.

So now the next step to dig: Ask the question. If you don’t ask the tough questions, the Talmud remains a closed book.

How can a day effect atonement? Isn’t that entirely up to the individual?

Atonement, after all, means a lot more than forgiveness. Just How can a day effect atonement? Isn’t that entirely up to the individual?as a crime against society causes damage that must be repaired, so too a crime against your Maker. Say you’re sorry with sincerity and you’re forgiven—but you still have to fix whatever is broken. That’s the full meaning of atonement: repairing the damage well enough that it won’t happen again.

How is it possible to ensure that it won’t happen again? Because that damage is first and foremost internal. The first repair is to fix the internal damage. Find whatever it is that drives this behavior. Fix that and you’ve made yourself a person that simply doesn’t do such things.

The Pleasure Principle at Work

Here’s a lucid explanation from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1792–1863) of the dynamic of damage and repair in vivid psychological terms:4

All human behavior, including self-damaging behavior, is driven by pleasure. That pleasure-association persists as a sort of being of its own, burrowing itself deeper and deeper into the human psyche every time it arises in memory, as that neuro-connection is consistently reinforced. That makes it easier for the person to fall into the same behavior a second time, and then repeatedly after that, each time further reinforcing that neurological bond.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel describes the associated pleasure as a kind of soul to this being. The actual behavior is its body.

Repair, then, is to un-pair: ToTo repair is to un-pair: To dissociate that sense of pleasure from that behavior. dissociate that sense of pleasure from that behavior. To pull the soul out of that body.

Take a fit of anger. Anger is a serious crime.

(For the purposes of this article, I’ve chosen to use the word crime rather than sin. The word sin implies a dualism in which there exists a moral realm where there are sins and a civil realm where there are crimes, and I don’t see such a dichotomy in Torah.)

The Torah considers anger a crime not only against your fellow human beings, but against your Creator. “One who loses his temper is as though he has worshipped other gods.”

Why is that? For one thing, if you believe that G‑d is in control of the universe, why are your raging against this human being?

Yet even more serious, in a rage of anger a person has become his own god. Think of the words often spoken at the time of rage—and if not spoken, tacitly implied: “How dare you do that to me? Don’t you know who you’re dealing with?”

Anger is especially difficult to overcome because it offers a perverse and intense form of gratification. For a fleeting moment, you are the most powerful being in the universe. You are the lion king asserting his rule over his kingdom, Darth Vader blowing an entire world to smithereens.

Anger brings with it an adrenaline rush of the sort athletes and musicians experience at the height of their performance. Neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines pump your body to become physically much stronger and more dangerous. Endorphins are also released, tickling your opioid receptors and telling them, “This is good! Let’s get more of these highs!”

All that is encoded as neuropath memory. And as with every pleasure sensation, the brain will play it back again and again, in the form of fantasies and dreams, each time reinforcing that neuron path connecting anger to pleasure.

If you’re fortunate enough, at some point in life you awaken to the damage anger has brought about—the relationships broken, the hurt caused, the scars your children will carry with them for years to come and just the utter fool you’ve made of yourself pretending you are a god.

But it’s not about consequences alone. If your remorse is only over the lousy consequences, you haven’t dealt with the anger itself. Because that means if you could get away with throwing a temper tantrum without the consequences, you might still be okay with it. Which means the anger could well survive your regrets.

But if you believe there is an Absolute Judge of good and evil, and that Judge has determined anger to be evil just for being anger, then it’s no longer just about consequences—it’s about anger itself. That now puts anger in existential danger. Which is just where we want it.

Now, in a moment of deep remorse, anger gains a new and yet deeper association: It becomes tied to bitter remorse. Anger has become despicable toThe remorse cancels out the pleasure and that anger-creature inside you begins to die. you. The remorse cancels out the pleasure and that anger-creature inside you begins to die.

But, Rabbi Menachem Mendel continues, that’s not enough. As long as this anger-creature’s body is still around, that pleasure-soul may still return. Just as an emotion replaced the soul of this creature, so an action is needed to vanquish it’s body.

That’s why the Torah prescribes vidui to accompany remorse. Vidui means simply to say it with your lips. Not to any member of the clergy, not on FaceBook, but not just to yourself either. Vidui means to move your lips and speak to G‑d in a soft voice, saying, “I committed a crime against You by losing my temper. I’m embarrassed and ashamed of what I did. I won’t do this again.”5

And then you can go and say the same to the people you raged against. You ask their forgiveness. And once they forgive, you have faith and trust that you are forgiven by G‑d as well.

It’s humbling. And at the same time it’s the bravest and most dignified act a human being can perform. You’ve self-repaired.

Does that mean you’ll never lose your temper again? That’s up to you. You’ll always have free choice.

But you have accomplished this: Next time you’re feeling the storm of anger may arise, you’ll be so horrified by the thought of losing your cool, you’ll want to run out of there before it’s too late. Which is a good idea. And by doing so, you have accomplished a complete self-repair, something to take great pride in.

Eventually, having no chance to express itself, anger will wither and weaken. Perhaps, with great effort, one day it may drop out of your life altogether.

Back to the Question

All this magnifies our question a thousandfold: How is it possible that a day could atone for you? How could an external force decide what is pleasurable for you and what is painful, what you embrace and what you reject?

The key to self-repair lies in that most intimate, essential core of your being that makes those most vital decisions. Change, then, could come only from within. What do the rabbis mean when they say “the day itself atones?” You are the only one who can clean up your own mess!

And, indeed, that is precisely what Yom Kippur provides that’s missing the rest of the year: You.

Because in every act of remorse the rest of the year, you are not reallyAs deep as you could reach within yourself, you simply do not have the capability to reach down to your very core and flick the switch that’s needed. there. As deep as you could reach within yourself, you simply do not have the capability to reach down to your very core and flick the switch that’s needed.

Think about it: Who is the you that feels remorse? Of necessity, it is the you that is entangled in this drama of crime and self-damage.

When you were doing the right thing and staying out of trouble, you identified with that good behavior. You felt that through this behavior you had a connection to G‑d, to your soul and to your people.

Then, at some point, you realized you had fallen away. You were afraid that you had lost your connection, your relationship with G‑d. Whether it was anger or shellfish, dishonesty or sexual impropriety—whatever the crime, you felt it had damaged you and rendered you unfit to stand before your Creator.

Fine, but that’s not the real you. It’s the you that has some connection to your faults and your damage.

True, the path of Torah and its mitzvahs connects us to G‑d. Breaking that script is like breaking the fine threads that connect you.

But the very fact that you were able to wake up to your own damage, to your disconnect—that itself indicates that your connection runs deeper, that it’s not contingent on your behavior alone, that besides those fine threads connecting you above, there’s some other deeper, intimate and unbreakable bond. Because if you had truly lost that relationship altogether, what was it that drove you to come back home?

There is a deeper you that is always connected, always pure. And that’s where total self-repair must come from.

The True You Connection

A pillar of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching is that a Jew is never lost. His disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Great Magid of Mezritch, is said to have once told his student, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, “Do you hear what they say in the heavenly academy? They teach that you must love the most wicked Jew just as you love the most righteous!”6

Because all Jews are connected and bonded by a single, pure soul that breathes inside each and every Jew.

Yes, the Torah says about certain crimes, “and that soul shall be cut off from its people.” Even then, nothing stands before one who determines he must return. Which means that some backdoor connection must still remain—enough to enable that impetuous thrust of return.

When Israel Singer, longtime secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, mentioned to the Rebbe that Lazar Kaganovitch still lives, the Rebbe asked, “Is he doing teshuvah?” Meaning, is he trying to make amends and come back to the fold.

Lazar Kaganovich was known as Stalin’s right-hand and can be counted among the most horrific mass murderers of the 20th century. The Rebbe had first-hand experience of the Soviet era these men dominated. For one thing, his own father had been brutally tortured by Stalin’s henchmen. Nevertheless, he still held hope.

But Singer replied that from the looks of Kaganovich’s penthouse apartment and his status in the Communist Party, there did not seem to be any signs of teshuvah.

The Rebbe took a moment to absorb that. Then he commented, “But you never know, maybe he’ll repent. When you go back the next time, you should tell him he should still do teshuvah, he still has a chance.”7

I don’t want to stain this page with mention of the crimes against humanity and against his own people that Kaganovich plotted and perpetrated. My point is that if the Rebbe saw hope for Lazar Kaganovich, there cannot be a Jew in the world without hope.

Because within the Jew breathes a neshamah, the breath of G‑d. And that neshamah is always pure. Even in the midst of the most horrendous crime, the neshamah screams, “I don’t want to do this! I am not part of this! It is not me! It is something that is happening to me!”

That is the you that is in hiding the whole year long—every day except for the day of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day when that pure core-essence of the soul flushes downward and pervades your entire being. It is a day when nothing stands between G‑d and the Jew.

And thatThat is the most essential element for a thorough cleansing and repair—that knowledge that you were always connected, always loved, never rejected. is the most essential element for a thorough cleansing and repair—that knowledge that you were always connected, always loved, never rejected. That the stains and damage are only external. That your true self never underwent any change at all.

With that knowledge, the cleansing of Yom Kippur happens in an entirely different modality. It begins not with a scrubbing down, not with remorse, not with pain, but with a joyful, blissful awakening that you are loved, you always were loved, and now it’s time to come back home.

Now the scrubbing can begin—and remorse, and even the pain of remorse. After all, the majority opinion is that Yom Kippur cannot have a lasting effect without repentance. And even Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi only speaks of washing away the crime. For the person to walk out of Yom Kippur cleansed, he will need to let go of his behavior.

That is why we repeat the long vidui on Yom Kippur, again and again, to go through that self-repair process on every level of our being, from the innermost to the most external.

But all enveloped within the context of the joy and bliss of return to our true and pure selves.

Undoubtedly, this is not a lesson for Jews alone. Every person who rehabilitates himself or herself can begin with this knowledge: I am a human being. I am created in the divine image. And I choose to return to that divine me, for, in truth, a spark of the divine can never be destroyed.

Even remorse can be with joy. Indeed, the most effective remorse comes hand in hand with a deep faith that G‑d believes in me.


On this, I have an enrapturing story to tell. But it's already posted elsewhere on our site. Read The Tenth Jew, as told by Yerachmiel Tilles. Have a blissful Yom Kippur.