I remove my kittel from the closet every six months. Before Pesach, I take it out to wear at the Sedarim and to daven Tal on the first day of Pesach. Then, at the end of Elul, I take it out to wear on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Rabbah, and when davening Geshem on Sh’mini Atzeres during Musaf.
The last few years when I’ve removed it from the closet, I’ve noticed that, strangely enough, my kittel seems to shrink a little bit more each year.
When I first purchased the kittel, shortly before my marriage, it was loose and flowing. But these days, there’s not much breathing room, and the buttons look like they are hanging on for dear life. I think the air in my closet must have some noxious fumes in it that cause the kittel to shrink. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.
The Jewish year is often thought of as a circle. Along our travels around the circle, we arrive at certain annual highlights, which are yamim tovim or fast days.
The truth is that the year would more accurately be portrayed as a spiral. While it’s true that we return to the same points each year, our goal is to observe and celebrate each special day on a higher level and with deeper appreciation and understanding than the year prior. It’s not just “Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur again,” but a newer and deeper period of t’shuvah than what I experienced last year.
Our goal is to never stagnate in our spiritual growth.
Rav Tzadok HaKohen writes that this idea also applies to our avodas Hashem. As a person constantly grows spiritually, he looks back at his previous improvements and feels that they were inadequate.
Rav Saadiah Gaon, leader of Babylonian Jewry in the tenth century, was once seen crying, and saying that he needed to do t’shuvah immediately. All those near him wondered what the great tzadik could possibly have done wrong?
Rav Saadiah Gaon explained by relating that he had once visited a Jewish community distant from his home. Seeking to conceal his identity, he sat in the back of the shul and made sure not to call attention to himself. He spent a few days at the home of a very hospitable man who treated him with the same cordiality that he would any other guest. But after a few days, it was revealed who the esteemed guest was. When the inn owner realized that he had Rav Saadiah Gaon staying in his inn for the past week, he was shocked. He approached the Rav, crying and begging for forgiveness. Rav Saadiah assured him that he had treated him very well. The man replied that if he would have known who Rav Saadiah was, he surely would have treated him with far greater honor and reverence.
Rav Saadiah explained that that experience made him realize that he, too, must do t’shuvah for his previous t’shuvah. Now he has a greater understanding of the greatness of Hashem than he had previously, and therefore he realized that the t’shuvah he did previously was woefully inadequate.
When I was a chasan, a rebbe of mine shared with me that when he was first married, he felt that he finally understood the meaning of love. Then, after five years of marriage and the birth of a couple of children, he looked back and laughed at himself. What he thought was love then was nothing compared to the bond and love he currently felt for his wife. After ten years, enduring the challenges of growing children and the stresses of daily living, he again reflected and concluded that he only now understood love. The same happened after 20 years. My rebbe concluded that he looks forward to continuing to have a deeper understanding of what love truly means as the years continue.
It was an endearing, beautiful, and meaningful lesson for me. A person must seek to grow in every area throughout his life. When he allows himself and his relationships to stagnate, that is when troubles begin.
The avodah of t’shuvah and the yearning for consistent aliyah ensures that our lives always have meaning, direction, and purpose.
It would be nice if my kittel would stop shrinking, but, conversely, I hope my neshamah only continues to grow and expand throughout my life.