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Yom Kippur | Finding the Joy in Yom Kippur

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

We are now in the ten days of repentance that connects Rosh HaShana with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these special days we prepare ourselves for the Day of Atonement.

Conventional wisdom is often the greatest obstacle to understanding what Yom Kippur is all about. We know that it’s a day of physical deprivation. The Talmud lists five forms of affliction that one has to undergo on the day – no eating, no drinking, no marital relations, no wearing of leather shoes and no anointing oneself with oil. It’s a day on which we spend most of it– if not all of it – in shul praying and confessing our sins.

On the other hand, the Talmud tells us something completely different. Firstly, we know that Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov – a good day and a day of celebration. That is why when women light candles for Yom Kippur the brocha of Shehechiyanu is said thanking Hashem for giving us this day. We say Shehechiyanu at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service on Kol Nidre night thanking Hashem for bringing us to this day. This brocha is always said on a mitzvah that is related to simcha, to joy. It is a day like any of our other festivals such as Pesach, Shavuot or Succot and a day of holiness.

The Talmud says that there were no two better days for the Jewish people than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is an obviously happy day, from the perspective of the Talmud, for two reasons: It is the day of forgiveness from G-d and it is the day that the second set of tablets was given. To understand these reasons we need to consider the history of Yom Kippur.

History of Yom Kippur

Each festival occurred around a specific event. Pesach was the event of the Jewish people leaving the land of Egypt. Shavuot was the giving of the Torah and the revelation at Mount Sinai. Succot focuses on living in the tabernacles in the desert. Rosh HaShana, as we learned last week, is the day which celebrates the creation of man and woman. Each one of our festivals is linked to a specific event in history and the lessons that can and must be learned from that event which impact the present. We don’t view history as events of the past at which we passively look at and try to draw some lessons. Rather these are events which live with us in the here and now. For us time is not divided clearly between past, present and future. The events of the past live with us in the present. When we experience the Pesach Sedar on Passover night and remember the going out of Egypt we feel as if we now are leaving Egypt. Each of these events lives with us as if we are experiencing it here and now, today. It is part of living with time.

So what is the event that occurred on Yom Kippur which gives us the history and the framework for understanding it? When the Israelites left Egypt they went from there to Mount Sinai. The journey took seven weeks and on the 50th day they reached Mount Sinai. That was the 6th of Sivan on which today we celebrate Shavuot. Moshe went up the mountain the day after the revelation on the 7th of Sivan and spent 40 days and 40 nights there. During that time he was taught many of the details and principles of the Torah. When he came down the mountain on the 17th of Tammuz he found that the people had been worshipping the golden calf which was a form of idolatry. He smashed the tablets and returned up the mountain for another 40 days and 40 nights begging G-d to forgive the people. The first set of 40 days and 40 nights was to receive the principles of the Torah while the second set was to beg G-d for forgiveness for the terrible sin of the golden calf. Our Sages compare the sin of the golden calf to a bride committing adultery at the chupah, at the wedding canopy, because the Jewish people had just received the Torah and already they were worshipping the golden calf. Moshe begs G-d for forgiveness which is refused. He then comes down the mountain, downcast, but G-d calls him back the next day – which is the first day of the month of Elul – and he spends another 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain after which his prayers are accepted. He comes down with a sign of G-d’s forgiveness. Forty days after the first day of the month of Elul is Yom Kippur – the 10th of Tishrei. Moshe came down the mountain on the 10th of Tishrei which is Yom Kippur with a second set of tablets, after the first had been smashed, as a sign that G-d had forgiven the people for the sin of the golden calf because they had repented.

Yom Kippur is rooted in that experience of receiving forgiveness from G-d. And on that day on which they were forgiven for that sin, a principle was created in the world and that was the principle of teshuva, of repentance. That is why Yom Kippur is the festival of hope. It is the festival that says no matter what we have done, we can repair the damage. The Talmud says that it is a day of forgiveness. It is the day the second set of tablets was given – almost as if a new Torah was given. It was the same Torah as before but it was new in the sense that it was born from the teshuva, the repentance, of the people. It was a Torah which was created after a terrible sin and after repentance of it, proclaiming that there is a second chance, that we can begin again.  In that sense it was a new beginning for the people and it was almost as if the Torah had been given again.

Getting a second chance

There is a custom to have a 24 hour candle burning throughout the period of Yom Kippur because the flame represents the light of Torah. As it says in a verse in Proverbs, “A mitzvah is the flame and the Torah is light”. We light that candle because Yom Kippur is a day of the giving of the Torah. Incidentally, we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Shavuot in the same way. We celebrate a dimension of it also on Yom Kippur in order to remind us that this is a Torah that can be there for us even after we have sinned and have repented. And G-d is there before the sin and after the sin. That’s why the famous verse which describes G-d’s Mercy reads Hashem Hashem Kel rachamim ve’chanun. The Talmud asks why the name is referred to twice? It answers that once is for before the sin and once for after the sin. G-d is there for us even after we have sinned, so long as we repent. Yom Kippur is about G-d’s forgiveness, it’s about G-d’s mercy and its message is that we have the capacity to begin again and to have a second chance.

How do we take that second chance after we have stumbled? The Talmud tells us that a person who says I’ll sin during the year and then will sort it out on Yom Kippur is not granted the opportunity to repent. That challenge is to us. That’s why it is a day of introspection and it’s a day where we have to repent and do teshuva.

Teshuva or repentance has a structure. The Rambam, Maimonides, explains based on the Talmud that there are different components of repentance : regret for the sin that we have committed; stopping to sin right now here in the present; and resolving in the future not to so sin again. Those are the three components of repentance,  relating to the past, the present and the future. That is how we build a proper framework for the process of repentance. And that’s what Yom Kippur is about. We need to go through that process of repentance. And part of why we desist from the physical pleasures on the day is so that we can focus purely on G-d. The Maharal explains that the Hebrew word teshuva really means to return. It’s about returning to G-d and being spiritually focused. It’s a day when the Talmud says we become like angels, completely detached from the physical world. And so the afflictions on the day are really about elevating us to a higher level and almost liberating ourselves from our bodies and from our daily concerns so that we can connect with G-d.

The physical & emotional act of repenting

Connecting with G-d is a part, but we also have to deal with another : the technicalities of where we have gone wrong. And that is why one of the major aspects of the prayers on the day is confession. We confess time and time again throughout the day where we have gone wrong. Confession, verbalizing where one has gone wrong, as the Rambam points out, is a fourth aspect to repentance. What is the purpose of confession? We only confess before G-d, and not before a human being. But once we have gone through the process of regret for the past and resolve for the future, why do we actually need to verbalise it? The first way of understanding this is that when we confess what we are really doing is giving a concrete expression to our repentance. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that there are some commandments which we fulfill purely physically. For example, the taking of a lulav on Succot is a physical mitzvah.  There are some mitzvahs that are purely in the mind and in the soul, for example belief in G-d is a mitzvah which is performed intellectually. He says there are certain commandments which are made up of a physical component and an emotional or intellectual component. An example is prayer. Prayer is physical in that there are words to be said, there is a prayer book to be recited, but the heart and soul of it are in the emotions and the thoughts of a person at the time of prayer connecting that person to G-d. Repentance also has a physical and an emotional component. The emotional component is the process of change – regret for the past, resolve for the future. On the other hand, there is a physical component – confession, an external manifestation of the internal process. And, therefore, confession and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Confession is really the concretisation of repentance. Speech – the verbalising of confession – says Rav Soloveitchik endows the thought of repentance with reality because when you say something it becomes real. Feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas become clear and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure says Rav Soloveitchik. So we need to make it real. It only becomes real when we express it. That is what the purpose of the confession is. Confession on the day of Yom Kippur is about making the whole process real.

Confessing is one of the 613 mitzvot. Not only is it a mitzvah to go through the internal process of repentance, of returning to G-d and of removing sin from our lives, but we need to go through the external process of the confession as well.

Paying off our debt

There is another dimension : confession itself leads to a form of atonement. How is that? Any pain that we go through in this world results in a form of atonement. The Talmud says that if a person has 30 days without any pain then they should be worried that they are receiving their reward in this world. The Talmud defines pain as putting your hand in your pocket and pulling out the wrong change. When a person has 30 trouble-free days, says the Talmud, they should be concerned. Why is that? We all do right and wrong. The Talmud tells us that G-d rewards our good deeds mainly in the next world. Our sins build up a debt to G-d.  Any pain that we experience actually works in our favour in the sense that it works down the debt. The Talmud says that we should rather experience pain in this world and work off our debt here than in the next world. This world is the best place to reduce our debt.

This doesn’t mean every time something painful happens we are being punished by G-d. We don’t know why things happen. But even if not sent as a direct punishment, any discomfort that we experience in this world can be used to reduce our debt to G-d. So next time you are stuck in traffic and it’s a hot day and the air conditioning is broken and the radio doesn’t work and your cell phone’s battery has gone flat and you have got no way of telling the people that you are running late for your meeting and you are feeling all bothered and anxious and aggravated – that aggravation itself is paying your debt. Again, it is not for us to try to identify the reasons for adversity. The bottom line is that the Talmud says that every bit of aggravation we feel in this world is used to our credit to work off the debt column.

Confession is painful because, whilst we know of our wrongs, to actually verbalise them is painful : it’s hard having to admit before G-d, to apologise and say we have done wrong. Rav Soloveitchik says that confession compels man in a state of terrible torment to admit facts as they really are and to give clear expression to the truth. This is a sacrifice, a breaking of the will and a tortuous negation of human nature. Verbalising something which we know is the truth makes it much more painful. And that pain in and of itself leads to a form of atonement that can lead to a state of humility.

A humble apology

What is so painful about apologising? If you have been involved in a dispute with a person and you know that you are wrong, why is it so difficult to apologise? Because it’s humbling, sometimes even humiliating. It requires a person who is really humble to be able to apologise properly. That is what we do on Yom Kippur. We come before G-d to apologise and that requires real humility. Humility, explains Rav Chaim Friedlander of Ponovitch, is really the root of all good things. He says that arrogance and self-absorption and not being able to see beyond oneself are the roots of all evil. We are only able to be good people when we can transcend ourselves. That is why he explains the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah pg17a, “Whoever is forgiving towards others, is forgiven by G-d”. Now the conventional understanding of this is that if we can be forgiving towards others then G-d will be forgiving towards us. Meaning: we are coming before G-d on Yom Kippur and saying to G-d, forgive us. But how can we ask that of G-d if when we are involved in a dispute and someone has wronged us and we are harsh and unforgiving towards that person. Therefore, the Talmud says the way that we treat others is the how G-d treats us. If we are forgiving and we don’t bear grudges then G-d will treat us in the same way.

Rav Chaim Friedlander continues by saying that being forgiving towards others is all about transcending one’s self. A person who is arrogant and self-absorbed and the centre of their own universe cannot see beyond themselves and cannot forgive people. But if we are able to forgive others it’s not only about measure for measure, but it’s also about being able to transcend self. G-d forgives us when we can transcend ourselves and can move outside ourselves and not see the whole world only in terms of who we are. We realise that we have within ourselves the capacity to forgive because we are not the entire world.

Confession means that we have got to actually step outside ourselves. A person who is self-involved can’t see their own faults. They can’t be humble enough to say : I have actually done something wrong. Really what confession requires is standing before G-d and going through a list of sins that we ask forgiveness for. Self-introspection means stepping outside of our lives and looking at ourselves objectively but that can’t be done by a person who is self-obsessed. We need to have the humility to do this and this is what confession forces us to do. When we go through the whole of Yom Kippur, time and time again saying forgive me for this sin, forgive me for that sin; what we really are doing is saying let me step outside of myself, let me see that I have done something wrong and let me acknowledge that in a humble fashion. And that leads to transcendence. We come out of Yom Kippur elevated because we have been elevated beyond ourselves.

That’s why confession is such an important part of repentance : it gives concrete expression to our internal process of change, of return and of repentance. It forces us to go through the pain of acknowledging uncomfortable facts about ourselves. And that pain is an atonement. And giving verbal expression forces us to move beyond ourselves and to transcend ourselves so that we can become humble people who are not inwardly but outwardly focused.

Healing power of teshuva

Yom Kippur is also a day of joy because we are being cleansed by being freed from the physical, by becoming angels, and returning to G-d but at the same time dealing with all that drags us down. We become big rather than little people, who can see the big picture, and can see our own selves in perspective and see all our faults and attempt to deal with them. We come out of all of that liberated and uplifted. That’s why Yom Kippur is not only a day of endurance but also a day of upliftment and inspiration.

Yom Kippur is a day of healing and redemption. The Talmud says about teshuva, in Tractate Yoma, 86a, that Rabbi Chama Bar Chanina said, “Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world”. The Maharal explains that healing is taking a person back to the natural state as a person’s natural state is a state of health. Disease is defined as departure from the norm. So he says repentance is about healing for the person and healing for the world. Because the natural state of a human being is to be close to G-d and to be in sync with G-d’s Will and G-d’s Commandments,. the process of repentance is healing since it brings us back to where we naturally belong.

What is a guilty conscience? A conscience comes from an awareness within the soul that we have done something wrong and have strayed from our natural being. When we repent we bring healing to ourselves and healing to the world. That is why Yom Kippur is a day in which there is catharsis, a day in which there is cleansing and healing so that we come out of the day uplifted and inspired. And we come out of the day redeemed and free.

The Maharal says that that is why Yom Kippur was the day which began the Jubilee Year. The Jubilee Year of Freedom began with the sounding of the shofar immediately after Yom Kippur because on Yom Kippur we truly become free, which is why the Talmud continues in Tractate Yoma, 86b, to say, “Great is repentance because it brings redemption”. Redemption is freedom. We become freed from sin and return to whom we really are and that is why it’s a day of such joy and elevation. If we go through that process of change with sincerity and we confess our sins with sincerity and we fast in such a way that we are uplifted and not dragged down by it, then we are able to be redeemed and elevated. We are able to be healed and so we come out of the day with a sense of great joy. That’s why we are told in the writings of our Sages, in the Code of Jewish Law, that as Yom Kippur leaves us we feel a sense of great joy because we have come through a day of elevation and a day of cleansing, of inspiration, of redemption and of healing.

May G-d bless us all with a shana tova, with a good year. May He bless us with the capacity to be inspired on the day of this great gift He gave us, the day of Yom Kippur. May we be inspired, uplifted, cleansed and healed so that we can go forward into the New Year renewed with inspiration to be able to serve G-d better than we have done until now.

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