The High Holidays are not designated just for tzadikim (righteous people); they are designed to renew the covenant between Israel and their father in Heaven—all of Israel: tzadikim, sinners, and those in-between. Indeed, not only is it permitted to pray with sinners, but we are required to pray with sinners, for our prayers are not whole without the participation of all the people of Israel. As it says in the Talmud: “Any fast that does not include sinners is not a fast, for the helbonah [a type of resin] had a terrible smell and yet it is included in the ingredients of the ketoret [holy incense].”
True tzadikim do not worry only about their own personal repentance. Though the sin of evildoers pains them and hurts them, tzadikim are not prepared to give up on sinners. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) writes: “Those special individuals, who trust in G-d’s light, suffer from the sins of the general public. Their love for the people is extremely strong; the power of good in their souls yearns precisely for the common good. And yet because of the sins that stick to them, this public to whom the tzadikim are attracted is liable to defile the tzadikim. But true tzadikim gladly suffer all spiritual and physical pain as long as they achieve their aim—for all to bask in G-d’s goodness.”
On Yom Kippur especially, we are permitted to pray with sinners because this is the day that we proclaim with certainty, that our sins do not truly represent who we really are. Our sins are the result of our falling into the grasp of our evil inclination. But my sins don’t change the fact that, deep within me, beats a pure soul that is repulsed by sin.
The hope expressed in the Yom Kippur liturgy, that G-d will “look at the covenant and not our evil inclination” when He comes to judge us is precisely the reason why we are permitted, obligated, and happy to pray with sinners. We model what we ask of G-d: We have faith in sinners; we believe that beyond all the fog there lies a great truth. In other words, we permit praying with those who on every other day of the year are defined as sinners because on Yom Kippur we discover that in the essence of their being they are not truly sinners.
We need to understand that not only do sinners not represent a nuisance to the general shul-going public, but their presence is important for the acceptance of the congregation’s prayer. In the absence of sinners, our prayers are not welcome, and so we must do everything possible to open up the gates of prayer before them, to bring them to the gates of our hearts on these holy days.
Gmar Hatima Tova—May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.