The Greatest Gift of All1
No words could be more comforting on the day of Yom Kippur. "I have
forgiven, because of your words."
Three times in rapid succession we shout this line, precisely as we usher in
the holiest day of the year. The phrase seems perfectly appropriate for our
needs - just the message we want to hear. But is it not a bit presumptuous?
Are we perhaps jumping the gun, projecting ahead of ourselves what we hope
to secure in a period of intense avodah? Shouldn't these words come at the
end of Yom Kippur, after a full day of fasting, teshuvah, vidui, and davening?)
Setting aside the issue of timing, does this phrase itself really stand up
to scrutiny? Consider its context. "But as I live . all the men who have
seen My glory.and have tested Me these ten times and have not heeded my
voice, if they will see the Land that I have sworn to give their forefathers
- and all who anger Me shall not see it." Hashem's forgiveness was
conditional, coming at a huge price! In essence, Hashem told those who had
accepted the report of the spies that they were indeed forgiven, but that
they should not think that the consequences of their sin had vanished, and
they were free to sport smiles of relief. It wasn't going to be that simple.
Is this the Divine answer to our prayers that we are looking for? Don't we
really want to hear, "You are forgiven, and the slate has been wiped clean?"
If we had one question to ask, it would be, "Will You forgive us?" We
would like to hear an unequivocal, "Surely!" in response. It is curious
that we take an apparent, "Yes, but with reservations," and enshrine it in
our Kol Nidre davening.
Yet another familiar bit of phraseology seems to lose its luster when we
ponder it. "Rabbi Akiva said, 'How fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom
do you purify yourselves, and who purifies you? - your Father in
Heaven!'" What exactly does it tell us? Who else would we think could
We will make headway with these problems only if we break out of our usual
thought patterns. We might start by recognizing that the chief function of
Yom Kippur is not forgiving sin, or granting atonement, or sundry other ways
of describing a slate wiped clean.
Why should Hashem announce a yearly amnesty, available to all fortunate
enough to be Jewish? At all other points in the year, we deny that Hashem
simply excuses wrongdoing - "Whoever claims that Hashem disregards
wrongdoing, his own life shall be disregarded!" Does He break His rules
on Yom Kippur?
Let's go back to the first Yom Kippur. Klal Yisrael had risen to
extraordinary spiritual heights at Har Sinai. The sin of the aigel dashed
hopes that their prominence would be preserved. It almost dashed a good
deal more than that. HKBH had been ready to abandon them, and start
building a people anew from Moshe, whose tefilos succeeded in aborting that
plan. Several stays atop the mountain, forty days each time, finally gave
Moshe the answer he sought. "I have forgiven, because of your words." Hashem
was ready to take them back in, so to speak, and to move on. There would be
consequences, but not the one they feared the most - utter rejection by
The day that was announced was the first Yom Kippur. If it was a relief for
them to hear that they were no longer locked out of His presence, it is just
as much so for us. Through our soul-searching in the weeks before Yom
Kippur, most of us have to encounter much that we don't like. As the Yemai
HaDin draw closer, our malaise increases. Discomfort morphs into real fear.
The greatest fear for many is that we have botched things so badly, that we
cannot - consciously or subconsciously - bring ourselves to talk openly to
G-d. From where will we find the chutzpah to stand before Him and plead for
mercy once again? Sullied as we are by sin, caked in the mud of wrongdoing
from head to toe, can we really walk into a Yom Kippur and function properly?
Rabbi Akiva provides the antidote to our paralysis. Before Whom do we seek
forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Before our Father! Our Father will let us in
the front door, even caked in mud! He will accept us with our inadequacies,
just as he did after the aigel. This is what fathers do, when their
children stand at the doorstep, with only their eyes indicating that they
seek reconciliation. We are prepared to accept almost any fate, if He finds
it necessary. One fate we cannot accept - being shut out of His Presence.
This is why we make mention of Hashem's reaction to the aigel at Kol Nidre.
He let us back in.
Reconciliation, then, is the magic word to describe the power of Yom Kippur.
But this doesn't sound entirely accurate either. The Torah calls it a day
of atonement, not a day of reconciliation. Aren't they very different? In
truth, however, reconciliation and atonement are not distant relatives, but
Tanna D'vei Eliyahu tells us that Hashem's cleansing of Jewish sins
gives Him great simchah. Think of a king who becomes embroiled in a bitter
dispute with his son. There is pain on both sides, although that of the son
does not compare to that of the father. If father and son make up, their
former bitterness helps propel their love to something stronger than what it
was before their pained separation.
It is good for both of them to be together again. It is even better for the
father than for the son. That is just part of what it is to bear children,
to be a parent. Hashem reacts the same way, as it were. He savors the
reconstituted bond between Himself and His people. He acts to bolster and
support it. To make it work well, He throws in the ultimate deal-sweetener.
He generously offers an amnesty to His beloved children, complete with
atonement and taharah. Atonement is not the essence of the day, but its
byproduct. Reconciliation remains the central theme; atonement follows in
Only a parent acts with such unstinting generosity. This is precisely Rabbi
Akiva's point. Before whom do we purify ourselves? Before our Father! A
father who forgives is not the same as a friend or neighbor who forgives.
In the case of our Heavenly Father, the welcome-back of reconciliation
brings with it the bonus of taharah.
But how do we get ourselves to show up at the door? Is simply living
through the day of Yom Kippur sufficient? To some degree, it is. If we
understand what it should mean, though, we can take far more away from the day.
Here, too, the words of Rabbi Akiva allude to the fuller answer. Before
Whom do we purify ourselves? Before our Heavenly Father. Let us recall Who
our Father is. Our puny minds are capable of grasping nothing of His
essence. The smallness we feel can be painful. We might think of shrinking
away, of drawing back from the Power of His Presence.
A better strategy would be to seek refuge, to find a place of safety. For
believing Jews, not only is there such a place, but we are all familiar with
its address. We escape not by running away, but by rushing headlong
directly into Him. We submerge our smallness into His greatness. We negate
our own importance, and reach out to cling to Him. By negating ourselves,
by being mevatel our sense of self, He moves within range. Bitul is the
key to achieving devekus. (The Torah alludes to this in its description
of the avodah in the kodesh kodashim. "No person shall be in the Tent of
Meeting when he comes to provide atonement in the Sanctuary." This
phrase includes the Kohen Gadol himself! At this moment of encounter with
the Divine, he must cease to be a person. He must translate his inadequacy
and smallness into a self-negation that leads directly to deveikus with
Hashem. He must leave the limitations of his humanity behind, and
The thought is not a new one. Maharal uses it to explain how Yom Kippur
works. It is a day that the souls of Jews find their way back to their
Source. Through bitul, the soul merges back into Hashem. Within
Hashem, sin has no place. It is not that sin is left at the door. Rather,
the neshamah is cleansed of the sin that adheres to it by now clinging to
Something that simply does not allow sin to exist.
Interestingly, there is a parallel to this in an activity far more common
than the once-yearly avodah of Yom Kippur.Rabbi Akiva goes on to add another
image. "Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so does HKBH purify Yisrael."
Think of what we are doing and saying when we immerse in a mikveh. We
submerge ourselves - completely and absolutely - in the water, becoming part
of it. No small part of ourselves remains outside. Before we enter, we
remove any substances that interpose between our bodies and the water.
Through the Maharal, we understand this identity. A mikveh purifies those
submerged in it.
On Yom Kippur, Hashem helps us submerge ourselves, lose our egos, nullify
our sense of self through complete union with Him.
A jewel from the past: Great rebbes used to speak on erev Yom Kippur about
mesiras nefesh, about giving our lives for Hashem. Why? What does dying
for Kiddush Hashem have to do with Yom Kippur? They would plead with the
tzibbur: "Why should we have to live though all sorts of consequences and
punishment for our misdeeds? Visualize yourself in your heart of hearts as
if you were giving your life for Hashem, and that will substitute for all
sorts of unpleasantness!"
Mesiras nefesh is nothing more than a demonstration of bitul. It is a
statement that one's own needs, interests, goals, desires - none of them
matter, relative to what Hashem wants. It is the submerging of the most
powerful instinct - survival - into the reality of Hashem. When a person
achieves such bitul, there is no further purpose in punishing the sinner for
his sins. By becoming one with Hashem, the sinner has disappeared
completely and naturally - at that point, he ceases to be a man. His face
shines with the radiance of the angels, but mortal man he is no longer.
What an outstanding opportunity Yom Kippur offers us - the ability to become
nothing! Arriving there, we find not absence, but the ultimate Presence.
We return to G-d in the mutual joy of reconciliation. Of the myriad Divine
gifts of which we are conscious, it may be the greatest gift of all.
 Based on Nesivos Shalom v.2 pgs. 170-172
 Bamidbar 14:20
 Bamidbar 14:22-23
 Yoma 85B
 Bava Kamma 50A
 Chapter 1
 Vayikra 16:17
 Derush l'Shabbos Teshuva, pg. 83-85. In the Beis Hamikdosh, this was
demonstrated by taking the blood of the goat designated by lot "for Hashem,"
and bringing it into the Kodesh Kodashim. The blood represents the Jewish
neshamah; bringing it inside makes the statement that the immediate source
from which that neshamah is taken, and to which it now returns, is Hashem
 Curiously, the etymology of "atonement" supports this approach. The
word comes to us through the Middle Engish "atonen", which in turn comes
from "at one."
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org