One of the central parts of the Yom Kippur prayer service is the alphabetical "al cheit" prayer where we confess to the sins we likely committed during the past year. The reason we need to confess verbally is explained by the kabbalists (see Derech Mitzvotecha-mitzvat teshuva): There are three necessary components to fulfilling the commandment of teshuva, returning to G‑d, by turning away from our negative behavior. Every negative action we do creates a prosecuting angel that testifies against us in the heavenly court. Our sincere regret for the negative action destroys the soul of the prosecuting angel. Our verbal confession destroys the body (however ethereal) of the prosecuting angel. The resolution not to commit the same sin again in the future erases the residue left by the negative action on our soul. We repeat the same confessions a few times over the course of Yom Kippur so that we remain pure throughout the day as our appeal to be forgiven is being reviewed.

Our verbal confession destroys the body...of the prosecuting angel.

The Shelah Hakadosh and other great scholars ask: Why, in all the detailed sins we describe, do we mention, "the sin that we committed before you with our evil inclination"? A Jewish person’s innermost core is a divine soul that is literally a part of G‑d. He or she is by nature pure. Every time we say "al cheit" we should say that it is because of our evil inclination, because it is the cause of the evil inclination, which is merely an external part of us. What is the particular sin we are singling out in this confession?

The Talmud asks why the Hebrew word for "heart," "lev," in the verse from the Shema—"b’chol levavecha," "serve G‑d with all your heart,"—has two letter "bais’s" when only one is needed? (Brachot 54a) And it answers: Because each person actually has two inclinations, a positive one that reaches for G‑dliness and a negative one that reaches for the world. The verse says, "serve G‑d with all of your heart" (with two bais’s) to teach us that we that we are commanded to serve G‑d with both of our inclinations, even with the evil inclination that reaches for the things of this world!

...let your eating remind you of your dependence on food...

The Lubavitcher Rebbe connects this idea to another Talmudic statement where G‑d is quoted as saying, "I have created an evil inclination and Torah as its seasoning." (Kidushin 30b) Just like seasoning does not nullify the flavor of the food, but only improves and enhances it, so too does Torah affect the evil inclination. Torah study and its commandments do not come to destroy the evil inclination, but rather to purify and elevate it. The ultimate goal is to use the evil inclination to do good, so that it becomes like an ox that is made to plow a field. Not only should the evil inclination not be an obstacle to serving G‑d, it should itself serve G‑d! For example, if you like to eat, let your eating remind you of your dependence on food, and that there others who need to eat but do not have the means, and help them by giving charity. Or, if you have an over-abundance of confidence, use that confidence to volunteer to take over a project that will reveal more G‑dliness in the world.

This is the meaning of the confession in the al cheit prayer, "for the sin we committed before you with our evil inclination." We are referring to the sins we committed because we did not successfully elevate and purify our evil inclination itself. Yom Kippur is not just a day of regrets, it is a day for transforming all our attributes into better platforms for serving G‑d. With this perspective, one can view all of the al cheit confessions in terms of the positive potential there, waiting to be enhanced by you. What seasoning will you use?

May you and yours be sealed for a good and sweet new year, Rabbi Shaul Leiter

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