How can we approach Yom Kippur with joy?
Table for Five: Yom Kippur Edition
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.
Lev. 16:30, from Yom Kippur Torah reading
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Author, Reaching New Heights series
The Neilah service signals that Yom Kippur is coming to an end. Most people see it as a frightening time of judgment, when Hashem is closing the door to our prayers. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe saw it differently. During Elul, Hashem greeted us in the field, that is, he collected the produce–the mitzvos– we worked on this past year. During Neilah, Hashem secludes Himself with us, closing the door to the rest of the world. He is showing us that in this room, He is storing our prayers, our atonement from this past year, along with all the spiritual blessing we have reaped from it.
But giving us this blessing all at once would be overwhelming. If Hashem sent the rain down in one giant sheet of water, it would be damaging to the land and people rather than beneficial. In His kindness, Hashem sends rain down in separate drops, so the earth can absorb it at a healthy pace and we can benefit from the cleansing, refreshing moisture. The gevurah, the strength, that Hashem employs at this time in “closing the door” is the gevurah necessary to separate a tsunami into a spring rain.
We need to pray every day, not only on Yom Kippur, because after the Neilah prayer, Hashem opens the door to the storeroom of blessing He has prepared for us, and through our prayers, He converts that treasure trove of spiritual blessing into distinct, palpable physical blessings, which He rains down upon us with love.
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy, Judaics Faculty
How can we not approach Yom Kippur with utter despair and humiliation for all the transgressions we have committed and are about to enumerate? Because God is on our side. God is fighting for us on this day of battle between Good and Evil, between our potential better selves and our past mistakes that can only hold us back. God gives us a second chance.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) explained that, “Without the intervention of the Almighty miracle of God’s Grace in a world built on the principle of Right and Justice, of cause and effect, every wrong committed would bring about the ruin of the sinner.”
In a modern midrash on this topic, the television series Ted Lasso contemplates the theme of forgiveness with optimism, as characters struggle and are helped by the faith and support of their friends. As Lasso states, “I hope that… none of us are judged by the actions of our weakest moments. But rather, by the strength we show when, and if, we’re ever given a second chance.”
On Yom Kippur, God gives each individual and the collective a second chance. In our verse, the Hebrew refers to a plural “you.” As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865 – 1935) observed, in the month of Elul we work on our personal teshuvah (repentance). And as the High Holidays approach, we take a note from Lasso’s playbook and rise to the desire for forgiveness for not only the whole nation, but for the entire world.
Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Composer, Musician, and Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus, OH
The more you care, the more you prepare. If something matters to you, you’re going to make sure that you are ready when it happens. Whether that be a presentation, a test, a basketball game – we practice, we prepare, we ready ourselves for the moment to arrive. We set an intention for what we hope to achieve, for how we want to feel, for what we want to experience.
So too with prayer, so too with atonement, so too with all Jewish ritual. This High Holiday period has so many beginning moments, going all the way back to Rosh Chodesh Elul. The more we think about what we want to happen, the more likely it is that we can make that happen when we enter our synagogues, or sit in our communities, or walk through the world on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is upon us, and this verse teaches us that Yom Kippur will atone for us and purify us of our sins, but the key word in this phrase is aleichem, upon you. The Chassidic Master Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk teaches that this word changes the actor in the verse from Yom Kippur to each one of us. Yes, Yom Kippur can do this, but it is upon us to make that happen. We won’t achieve this without effort and striving. As we approach Yom Kippur, what do we hope to feel on the other side? What are the ways we can strive to get there?
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Senior Rabbi, www.NerSimcha.org
I love reading this verse each year as it is one of the texts that lead us to understand that Yom Kippur is actually a joyous holiday!
The secret is found in the literal translation of the Hebrew. “He” is actually better translated as “it”, as the pronoun is referring to “this day”. According to Mishna Yoma 8, the day of Yom Kippur itself is holy and cleanses us. But this is only true for the sins we have made against God, not for the sins between people… that must be done between individuals. Yom Kippur does not atone for transgressions between one person and another.
So while it doesn’t help with interpersonal forgiveness, it really is terrific that God forgives us on this day as soon as we genuinely ask and repent. Yoma 8 continues with a lot of detail about the holiness of the day itself and how it cleanses us of our sins against God, even comparing it to the cleansing and forgiveness we receive at death.
This is one of the many reasons that Yom Kippur is considered a joyous holiday: we know that God forgives us for sins we have made against Him. Like a loving parent, God accepts our supplications, and we are cleansed on this day. It’s supremely kind that the Divine Judge forgives us, but we still need to make amends with other people. May those people forgive us as easily as God; may we all be as forgiving of others as God is of us; and may we all have an easy fast.
Rabbi Brett Kopin, Milken Community School; Base LA
My seventh grader taught me an amazing piece of Torah today. He came to my office to ask me about “the biggest bully” in the Torah. “Well,” I said, “Pharaoh comes to mind.” He shook his head, looking almost disappointed. “It’s not Pharaoh. It’s God!” He continued: “God is everything, right? So if God is the greatest force in the Universe, God also has to be the weakest. If God is compassionate, God also has to be the bully.” I was captivated. “God is the Creator; God is also the Destroyer. God punishes; God also forgives.” He paused, thinking over his next few words: “God must be, by definition, a pair of opposites.” In that moment, I thought, “Who is the rabbi in the room?”
We walked out of my office together and one of my advisees waved at me. “Are you his advisor? I bet you’d make a pretty good advisor.” I smiled, “And I bet you’d make a pretty good rabbi.” My teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, once said that when she was younger she knew God loved her because of the teachers He sent her, and when she was older she knew God loved her because of the students He sent her. So after we parted ways, I thanked God for sending this seventh grader to me, and for letting me know that for whatever transgressions I may have committed this past year, I had been forgiven.
Image: “On the eve of Yom Kippur” by Jakub Weinles, c. 1900
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