The Torah tells us that G-d Himself declares:
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be cleansed before the L-rd. (Leviticus 16:30)
Yom Kippur is a day of general pardon, when spiritual debts are wiped off the books, so to speak. As of today, Heaven starts us off with a fresh, clean page in our ledger.
Life would be far easier if we only had such an arrangement with our human creditors. No credit card company would dream of giving us such advantageous terms. When we owe money to others, we are relieved to get away with paying only the principle; if we get away without paying interest, we consider ourselves fortunate. Imagine if, once a year, all our debts and promissory notes were torn to bits, and we could start out afresh! But this happens only in our relationship with G-d, not with our fellow men.
Why should there be a distinction? G-d is, above all, just and righteous. It is He who defines justice. Why should He agree to forgive us and to wipe the slate clean each year?
First of all, we must realize that G-d's relationship to us is far different from that of the owner of the local corner grocery shop where we've run up an outrageous bill. Neither is He comparable to someone who was kind enough to extend us a major loan, which we have failed, so far, to return.
G-d relates to us as a living father to his sons, a father whose joy in life is showering benefits and goodness on his children. He grants us the breath of life, good health, livelihood, and, when we think of it, everything else we have in life, as well.
However, even a kind-hearted father, who meets all his children's needs, has a goal he wishes to achieve. It is his fervent wish to see his offspring well-established in life, accomplished, able-bodied, and functioning on their own. It is no small source of satisfaction for him to see them able to stand on their own two feet and function independently.
If he owns a large business, it would be his greatest delight to appoint his sons to manage his branch offices, but first, they must prove themselves in real life, in their own right. Rather than supporting them with a direct hand-out, he prefers to pay them a generous salary, which they earn honestly, by using their talents to further the family business.
Indeed, the Creator has appointed us as "branch managers," responsible for His most precious project, the advancement of His first-born, favorite son, Israel. In other words, we are responsible for ourselves. If we succeed in our assignment, it is we, above all, who stand to gain. This is the meaning of the Biblical verse:
Behold, this day I have set before you life and death, the good and the evil; therefore, you shall choose life, in order that you and your seed may live!" Deuteronomy 30:17
G-d delights in His son's progress. He is gratified when His child proves himself "on the job." One aspect of His pleasure derives from the fact that now, He can pour out His goodness upon him not out of favoritism for His first-born, and not out of pity, or paternal concern, but rather because His child has earned it, and fully deserves the benefits his Father is so eager to shower on him.
Moreover, the Creator tells us: "All the good which I bestow on you – good health, pleasure from your family, and joy – all these are fringe benefits; they are not your ultimate reward, which awaits you in the Next World."
Our Sages compare the fruits of our good deeds, which we reap in this world, to the interest that accrues on funds deposited in the bank. Even if we use the interest for our livelihood, here and now, the principle will always remain in our account, to be called upon in the future, as needed.
So, too, does G-d grant us "interest" on our good deeds performed in this world, while guarding the "principle" and making certain that it remains there, intact, for our future benefit in the World to Come.
However, what happens if a favorite son is appointed head of a major branch of the family company, bears heavy responsibility for the future success of a key section of the business, and turns out to be a total failure?
Let's say he made a series of wrong decisions, wherever possible, he took the wrong man for the job, misjudged customers, suppliers, timetables, misinterpreted financial reports – in short, he made every possible mistake in the book. As a result, the company took severe losses and is no longer considered one of the top fifty enterprises in the country. Its stock has gone down drastically, its reputation is at risk, and its future, uncertain.
Nonetheless, at the close of the financial year, he presents a request for the annual dividend awarded to the company's top executives for loyal service to the company.
This is more or less our situation on Yom Kippur. With eyes downcast, we present ourselves before our CEO in Heaven, and declare: "We made errors, we have failed to live up to Your expectations, and, for that matter, to our own. What is more, we pilfered funds from the office kitty. Our bungling has driven the firm into the mud. The situation is disastrous.
"Even so, we ask that our appointment to the directorship of this branch to be renewed. Please give us another chance, another year of good health, a fat salary, full benefits, the joy of seeing our children grow and prosper."
In short, we ask for a full complement of all the blessings we received the previous year, before our blunders and miscalculations entangled the firm in considerable loss of profits and of the public's confidence.
We admit our guilt, but are not willing to forgo any of our comforts and benefits as a consequence.
Surprisingly enough, despite all the disappointments and difficulties our shortcomings have caused, our divine CEO turns to us and asks one central question:
"Have you learned from your mistakes? Did you sit down and analyze where you went wrong? This year was unquestionably a failure. Have you made a plan for next year that will correct the shortcomings? Is there any reason to expect next year to be better? Have you prepared a list of improvement for the year to come?"
This is the question expressed in the opening verse of the Haftorah we read in the synagogue on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
"Return, O Israel, to the L-rd, your G-d, for you have faltered in your iniquity.
In other words, we are urged to turn back to G-d, to present ourselves before our loving Father, despite all our failures at the prestigious position He acquired for us. The verse urges us to turn to Him and say: "Please, erase the past, tear up last year's report, and put a rehabilitation plan into effect for our benefit."
If we come before our Maker with a clear, well-thought out plan in hand for the near future, surely He will be only too pleased to grant us the opportunity to put it into action. This way we can be assured that we will be inscribed for a healthy, happy, and pleasant New Year of blessing and joy!