Thursday, October 06, 2016

Yom Kippur

By Rabbi Dov Berel Wein
The holiest day of the year is almost upon us. The time of atonement and forgiveness, of introspection and self-analysis has again arrived. The unique quality of the day of Yom Kippur is that it is a day of cleansing. Just as our refraining from food and drink on that day helps cleanse us physically so too does our participation in prayer, serious thought, recognition of personal faults and a new commitment to do better in the future cleanse our personalities and souls. We are all well aware that the buildup of plaque in one's arteries is dangerous to health and surgical and medicinal intervention is necessary. Unfortunately, during the year a great deal of plaque has been built up in the mental, emotional and spiritual arteries of our being. We should therefore look at Yom Kippur as being an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of that plaque buildup and focus our attention on staying healthy both physically and spiritually. There is no easy way or shortcut to accomplish this goal. There is opinion in the Talmud recorded for us in the name of the great Rabi Meir that merely passing through the day of Yom Kippur itself can accomplish this end without our active participation. However, Jewish law and tradition did not accept Rabi Meir’s opinion as being binding and instead demanded the sensation of human repentance to be present in order for the cleansing process of Yom Kippur to be effective. Yom Kippur therefore is not to be viewed as a passive day of restraint and refraining but rather as a day of active participation in the process of cleansing our souls and purifying our emotions.

Because of this requirement of the necessity for our conscious and active effort of repentance to be present, Yom Kippur is transferred from being purely a day of rest into a day of wrenching emotional and spiritual activity. It is possible to sleep away the entire day and thereby technically not violate any of the prohibitions of Yom Kippur. But it is unimaginable that if one does so that one has really experienced Yom Kippur. The most difficult part of the day is not, in my opinion, hunger or thirst or physical fatigue - it is the necessity to be honest with ourselves and face up to our weaknesses and to the areas in our life and in our relations to others that need attention and improvement. We are all born with the gift of denial. Original man in the Garden of Eden when confronted by God with the enormity of his sin does not readily admit that he was at fault at all. He casts about to put the blame on others and the others in turn also lay their guilt upon still others. The ability to admit error is one of the most difficult psychological and emotional traits to be encountered in life. Yet without that ability and by remaining in constant denial of one's shortcomings there is little hope for improvement and for achieving a more balanced and productive life. Yom Kippur can cleanse us and create us anew. But it cannot do so unless we are willing to face our own shortcomings and cleanse ourselves from them.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem and the High Priest of Israel performed the public rituals of Yom Kippur, forgiveness, cleansing and personal improvement were somehow meant to be easier to obtain. However, even then with such optimal circumstances present, the Jewish people did not truly exploit the opportunity of repentance, improvement and cleansing. Therefore both Temples were destroyed. In a strange way, Yom Kippur, over the almost two millennia since the disruption of the Second Temple, has become even more of a spiritual and emotional day. Since we can no longer rely on the Temple services or on the intercession of the High Priest on our behalf, we have become well aware that much depends upon us and only upon us. The removal of denial is the first step towards becoming a better person, building a stronger family, creating a more just and righteous community and strengthening our nascent state here in the Land of Israel. We should therefore make a great effort not to allow Yom Kippur to slip away from us merely as a day of rest and restraint. The gift of Yom Kippur is that for at least one day in the year we can be honest with ourselves and truly unite with our inner self and soul. Whether we do so or not is completely dependent upon each and every one of us solely and upon our attitude, thoughts, behavior and commitment on that holiest day of the year.

No comments: