Yom Kippur is about repairing relationships. Ever since the tablets were smashed, following the sin of the golden calf, and we were forgiven on Yom Kippur and given a new set of tablets, this has been a day of rebuilding broken connections. To understand how this works, we need to take a closer look at the Yom Kippur service and the commandments of this day.
Once a year the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Holy Temple and perform the incense offering. The mystical writings teach that the secret of this service is a revelation of inner quality deeper than that found any other day of the year. (Ramchal, Kitzur Kavanos of Yom Kippur) Like the dimensions of the holy of holies that defy nature, Yom Kippur is about reaching a place that transcends externalities.
This is expressed in the mystery of the two Se’irim (goats) of the Yom Kippur service. The Kabbalists teach that they correspond to the forces of inner and outer existence, unity and positivity on the one hand, discord and negativity on the other. (Ramchal, ibid) On the surface both goats are the same, in height, color, and value. (Yoma, 62a) Yet, lots are drawn and one is sent to the wilderness, thrown off a cliff backwards, broken into pieces (corresponding to the forces of dispersion), and the other is offered up by the high priest, consumed by a heavenly fire, on the inner altar. This is representative of reconnecting to our core, a spiritual unity with G-d, accomplished by throwing off the externalities that can obstruct who we truly are.
(Although today we are not able to physically perform the Yom Kippur service, lacking the Holy Temple, there is a concept called “Uneshalma Parim Sefaseimo” – “Our lips are in place of our cows” meaning that our recitation of the Torah verses of the service count as if we have performed the service.)
Yom Kippur is a day of Neshama, of returning to our soul, whose voice may have been blocked by walls of physicality. To remove these walls we take a step back from our involvement in matters of the body, refraining from eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in relations. We express in doing so, our desire to hear the voice of the soul, and to align our lives with it.
We recite Viduy, or confession (for lack of a better translation) in which we express our soul’s desire to fling from itself every debasing attachment. The root form of the word Viduy is the same as the word “Modeh” which means to assume responsibility. (Kav Hayashar, Ch. 27) We take responsibility for having behaved in a way that was beneath us. This is encapsulated in the concluding words of the confession, “Vekol zeh enenu shoveh li” – And all of this was not equal to me – it was beneath me.
Appreciating who we really are, and understanding what is unworthy of us, lies at the heart of to the other two requirements (besides Viduy) of teshuva (the charge to return to G-d after having erred), regretting our misdeed, and committing to refrain from this error in the future. By appreciating the greatness of our souls, and the nature of our relationship with G-d, we will naturally feel sorry for having lowered ourselves and be committed to walking a higher path.
Teshuva has nothing to do with self-bashing. It is about returning to who we are and realigning our lives with the One who put us here. This is the meaning of the High Priest articulating the explicit name of G-d, specifically in the Viduy part of the service. We take responsibility for having lowered ourselves while encountering the Divine.
An essential part of receiving G-d’s forgiveness is addressing where we have wronged others. As hard as it is to admit fault, and deal with possible shame, embarrassment, and restitution, G-d did us a huge favor by creating a season of forgiveness. In the spirit of this time of year, it is much easier and more natural to ask others for forgiveness. (Can you imagine how much more difficult this might be without Yom Kippur?)
To make things even better, the Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Law) rules that when someone comes to ask for forgiveness we should not be cruel and refuse. (Orach Chaim, 606:1) Furthermore, when we sincerely ask for forgiveness and are refused, we are required to ask up until three different times (each time accompanied by three people), after which the onus is on the person refusing to forgive. (For questions about exceptions please consult a competent halachic authority.) Most people welcome an opportunity to clear the air and repair relationships and G-d guarantees that when we forgive others He is forgiving of us.
On Yom Kippur, G-d opens an inner reality, beyond limitations, and beckons us to enter, to reconnect to Him, to others, and to ourselves. He sets before us a path of return in the form of the Yom Kippur service and the directives of the day.
Follow it and come home.