I Know a Great Dry Cleaner
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a favorite article of clothing gets large, noticeable stain. You know the kind I’m referring to. It could be the skirt that matches with everything, or the blouse that is just so flattering.
You send it into the dry cleaners with the hopes that they will return it to you with this obvious stain removed – but alas, no luck. They’re sent back with that dreaded note: Sorry, we tried and tried, but just could not remove that stain…
Oh, the frustration!
G-d bestows to each of us a precious, priceless soul that our body “wears.” We spend our days as imperfect humans. We make mistakes – even messes! – which slowly soil our souls with iniquity. Yet every morning after slumber, He returns that soul to us in pristine condition.
This sentiment is found in the prayer “Modeh Ani” that we recite upon awakening every morning:
I thank You, living and enduring King, for You have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness.
No stain is too tough for Hashem, for His dry-cleaning skills are out of this world!
For the really tough stains on our souls, there is a special time of year for deep cleaning: the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. To celebrate the secular New Year, most of the world throws parties. Yet, the Jewish New Year is a time of repentance and renewal. The time period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a particularly auspicious time as we are cleansed from our iniquities.
When G-d “dry cleans” our souls, they come back even nicer than they were when we first received them. “The place where a baal teshuvah (someone who repents) stands, no tzaddik ever stood.” (Gemara Berachot 34B, Sanhedrin 99A)
I always wondered how that was possible. It was one afternoon while I was receiving a haircut down in Atlanta, Georgia, that I finally understood. As an observant, married woman, I cover my hair, and therefore asked the salon if they could accommodate me with a private room. In their sweet, Southern twang, they agreed.
When we headed into a back room, the hairdresser expressed to me that she had never met a Jewish person before. She appeared to be very intrigued by all the laws and details that accompanied Orthodox Judaism.
In her Southern accent, she asked, “So…what happens when you sin?”
I looked at her somewhat confused and responded, “I’m not sure what you mean?”
“You know, like what happens when you commit a sin? Does lightning strike, or something?”
I was shocked by her question, but was happy to answer it. I said, “Judaism doesn’t view G-d as a Big Bad Wolf-type figure looking to punish us whenever we sin.” I continued to explain that nothing physical happens, and that it’s always the person’s choice as to whether or not he wants to follow G-d’s command.
The deeper meaning hit home as I watched her style my hair. I watched as my hair was cut off from the source of growth – the root. So too, when we do an aveira, we distance ourselves from Hashem, severing our natural relationship. When a person does teshuvah, or repents, she reconnects, or re-ties that relationship back up.
Using different imagery, it is similar to a rope hanging from the sky. When we sin, we cut the rope; when we do teshuvah, we tie the rope together. Once tied, the rope might be bumpy and might not be perfectly smooth, but it’s shorter. In other words, the bottom of the rope is closer to the source in the sky than it was before. As baalei teshuvah, our road to closeness with G-d may not be perfectly smooth. It may be bumpy like the rope, but after mending our relationship we are closer to our Source than we were before.
In a certain sense, then, someone who repents is on a “higher” or closer level to G-d. Every one of us is truly a baal teshuvah, since each day we make mistakes. Hashem does not want or expect us to be angels – He created us as humans. Rather, He wants us to recognize our imperfections, and desires for us to try to strive for a closer connection to Him each day.
A parable explains this in a deeper way.
There once was a king who had three bottles of vintage wine. This wine had been passed from generation to generation and was counted amongst his most prized possessions. The king was leaving town for a week and wanted to guard his precious wine. Therefore, he entrusted one bottle to each of his three best friends.
While the king was away, the first friend could not contain himself and opened the bottle. After smelling the wine, he took a sip, and enjoyed it immensely. After tasting a wine so delicate, he was overcome and chugged the rest down. Horrified by his own actions, the bottle was left completely empty.
The second friend was curious as well, but had such a deep love for the king that he did anything possible not to open the wine. He gave it to his wife and asked her to hide it from him so that he would not even be tempted to open it.
The third friend lived alone and was overcome with desire to taste the wine. He opened it up and took one sip. Although he was smitten with the wine and wanted more, he forced himself to close it up and never took another sip.
When the king returned, he was furious with his first “friend” and sentenced him to death. He then gave ten thousand dollars to his second friend as reward for not even tasting the wine.
With the third friend, he did something surprising: He gave him one million dollars as reward.
The second friend approached the king and said, “I don’t understand! I didn’t have any of the wine. He sipped it! Why didn’t you punish him, let alone reward him with so much more than me?”
The king responded, “Ah, my friend, you are good to me. Your love for me is strong. You never tasted the wine or experienced how sweet it was. Yet this man tasted the wine. He knew just how good it was, but still managed to stop himself because of his love for me. That wine was simply irresistible – anyone who could stop themselves after tasting it is truly expressing great devotion. That is why he earned such a reward.”
As baalei teshuvah, we have all experienced the taste of “sin.” When we are still able to walk away, that is a higher level of devotion to Hashem than someone who has never experienced sin at all.
We culminate this time period with the holiday of Yom Kippur. It says that on Yom Kippur, we wear the tallit (prayer shawl) of Hashem, and therefore we wear white to signify the day (from a midrash mentioned in Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b). What is the deeper lesson of this prayer shawl analogy?
Imagine seeing a young toddler who is covered in dirt and filth. Food is smeared in his hair and ears. His nose is filled with mucus. Most adults would pass him by with their noses in the air, all while silently judging his mother. But how does the mother react when seeing her child? She gently picks him up, places him in the bath, and carefully cleans his smooth skin. Then she lifts him from the tub using a fresh, white towel. She wraps him in the towel, while only his little face peeks through.
On Yom Kippur, each of us is that baby, scooped up lovingly in G-d’s arms. We have dirtied ourselves and are covered in stains, but G-d, our parent, scoops us up in our white garb and holds us closely. Anyone else would judge at our sins, perhaps with disgust, but Hashem loves us, picks us up, and cleanses us. After the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are clean, and left stain-free. A much better job than my dry cleaner could ever accomplish.