The special vidui that we recite on Yom Kippur begins with the following confession:
על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באונס וברצון.
For the sin that we sinned before You under duress and willingly.
It is somewhat enigmatic that the very first confession we make is for transgressions that we violated under duress. We have a rule, “onnes Rachmana patrei” — the Torah exempts us from violations that occur under duress. Why, then, do we need to confess for these violations?
The Vilna Gaon (cited in Machzor HaGra) suggests that we can be held accountable for not looking ahead. We may actively create a situation that prevents us from perform a mitzvah later, or we passively allow such a situation to happen. While we might be under duress at the time of the violation, if we would have had some foresight, the duress could have been avoided. For that lack of foresight and advanced preparation, we need atonement.
R. Meir Dan Plotzki, Kli Chemdah (Moadim Vol. I no. 91), notes that there are additional situations of duress that would require atonement. First, if we were forced into a situation that we really wanted to be in. What if, for example, you have a strong desire to eat a cheeseburger. You then find yourself in an unusual life-threatening situation that requires eating a cheeseburger. Although you may eat a cheeseburger to save your life, if you are pleased to be in this situation then atonement is required. Second, if you were initially forced into a situation that required violating the Torah, but as it developed, you became a willing participant, that too requires atonement. Both of those situations involve duress but they also involve ratzon (desire), either at the outset or as the process developed. That is why we say b’onnes uv’ratzon — under duress and willingly. We need atonement for situations that involve onnes combined with ratzon.
We approach this Yom Kippur with a very legitimate “onnes pass.” As a result of COVID-19, there were many mitzvot this past year that we couldn’t perform and perhaps we still cannot perform. However, our “onnes pass” requires that it truly be onnes and not onnes mixed with ratzon. If our inability to perform certain mitzvot led to a sense of relief rather than agony, we have the ability to rectify that when we say “al cheit shechatanu lefanech b’onnes uv’ratzon” and accept upon ourselves that when the crisis passes, we will enthusiastically participate in all of the mitzvot that were affected.