Yom Kippur: Of Angels & Men
The Mitzvah: The tenth day of Tishrei is Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement.
There is a prohibition to engage in five Innuyim, "afflictions" namely not
to eat or drink, not to wash, apply oil, wear shoes and not to cohabit.
The holiest day in the Jewish calendar when the heavenly decree for the
new year is sealed, Yom Kippur is termed "Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of
absolute rest" (Leviticus 16:31). The culmination of Ten Days of
Repentance beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the essential nature is its
position as a "Day of Atonement".
Yom Kippur is almost universally observed by Jews of all backgrounds. The
day is spent is earnest prayer and confession, a pale reflection of the
elaborate avodah, divine service that took place in the Temple. In former
years, this had been chiefly enacted by the High Priest who exclusively
entered the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary bearing incense.
But what do the abstentions from our physical daily activities have to do
with the pursuit of atonement for our sins? Indeed, how can the Jew hope
to achieve forgiveness from G-d for his many sins on this awesome day?
There is an important principle in Jewish thought that the contamination
of sin comes from without. The essence of a Jew, his inner soul, remains
pure and can never be tarnished. The soul is "a spark of the divine"
placed within each Jew. In the morning prayer we say "O G-d, the neshamah,
soul that you placed within me, is pure?" Sin is therefore an unwelcome
intrusion. It is where the physical temptations of the body pull in the
opposite direction to the spiritual urgings of the soul.
The literal translation of the word teshuvah, repentance is "returning to
oneself". Where a person has deviated from the pathway of life by not
observing the Torah laws, to achieve forgiveness, it is imperative that
he "returns back on track". This means identifying himself with his soul
and not associated himself with his body.
Sabbath, as the seventh day of the week, is where the physical world of
creation "returns" to G-d its Creator, the Ultimate Source of everything
(the word Shabbat rearranges to spell shov, return). Yom Kippur is
a "Sabbath of absolute rest" where atonement for man's misdemeanors
similarly demands returning to one's spiritual roots, in repentance and
coming close to G-d.
The day's atonement and focus calls for man to rise above his bodily
needs. He is prohibited from activities that involve his body or express
his physicality such as eating and drinking, because, as explained by the
Maharal, this is a day whose entire emphasis is on returning to his
spiritual and pure essence. As such, Yom Kippur is when man metaphorically
becomes an angel. (On this day, like the angels, we recite aloud the
verse "Blessed is your Name, the glory of your Kingdom for eternity").
Identifying himself exclusively with his pure essence, means
disassociation from sin. This had its parallel when, dressed in the purest
white, the High Priest enter the holiest and innermost chamber in the
Sanctuary on this High Holy day. For such purity, he worn no gold vessel
upon entering as this would recall Israel's sin of the Golden Calf.
Indeed, Yom Kippur marked the day when the Jewish nation were finally
atoned for this sin.
The way to national and personal forgiveness is to confess and repent by
declaring complete detachment from one's past failures, when the external
kernel and layers of sin are discarded. This is Yom Kippur's atonement,
when the true nature of every Jew, his pristine spiritual soul, is of
paramount importance. The momentous opportunity offered by Yom Kippur is
ours for the taking. We hope and pray that we merit atonement to be
inscribed and sealed for a year of life and goodness.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene and Torah.org.