A brief meditation before Yom Kippur

For me, the last Mishna in the tractate Yoma sums up the entire day of Yom Kippur. The Mishna reads,

Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean” (Ezekiel 36:25). And it further says: “O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O Lord” (Jeremiah 17:1) –just as a mikveh purifies the unclean, so too does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.”

From the moment we enter the synagogue until the final blast of the Shofar signaling the completion of the fast and the day, we live in another world. Not eating, not drinking, refraining from so many of the daily activities, dwelling from night to night with only the briefest of breaks creates a moment in time. We stand immersed, as one surrounded by the mikveh waters, in holiness. God envelopes us and wraps in forgiving arms of mercy.

Fasting, confessing our sins, and praying in synagogue does not constitute the hardest part of the process. As Rambam so piercingly explains,

One who confesses verbally yet has not concluded in his [or her] heart to abandon [old ways] is like one who immerses holding the source of impurity in his hand. Immersion doesn’t work [to wash away impurity] until [the sinner] casts away the source of impurity [ the sin itself.]” (Laws of Repentance 2:3)

We enter the mikveh, the cleansing waters of the Divine. However, we must enter naked. We must do the work and throw away that which is holding us back from God’s warm embrace. Breaking with the old, the cracked and broken, the parts which are preventing us from moving on demands an act of will of enormous proportions. We must look in the mirror no matter how much we don’t like what we see and change. Or at least attempt to as best can. We must remove the soiled outer garments of our soul and peer naked at the abyss of our lives – at the good, the bad, and especially the [morally] ugly. That work is hard. Throwing away the source of one’s sin, for many, if not most, requires an act of spiritual heroism. We are not always up to the task. How will the waters cleanse us if we won’t allow them to?

Reb Nachman of Bratslav discusses the strangeness of approaching God on Rosh HaShana; however, I think this idea fits with Yom Kippur as well. He taught,

We see His compassion in that, for our benefit, He specified that Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgment, should fall on the New Moon. This is a great kindness, for how could we be so presumptuous to ask for forgiveness from God? He was, therefore, kind to us and set the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShanah, on [the day of] the New Moon, when God Himself, as it were, seeks forgiveness, as in “Bring an atonement offering on My behalf,” which was said in connection with the New Moon (as our Sages, of blessed memory, taught; Shavuot 9a). And so we are not embarrassed to ask for forgiveness on the Day of Judgment since He Himself asks for forgiveness then.” (Likutei Moharan Part II 1:14)

In other words, suggests Reb Nachman, God, too, seeks forgiveness. We could not approach the Divine in His full Royal Glory as King. That would seeצ to be the height of hubris. How can God forgive if He doesn’t understand the notion of sin, of being broken? However, because God is broken, because, according to the mystical tradition, the Divine glory, indeed, is ruptured and, as it were, erred, we can approach. In Kabbalistic circles, the notion of Divine brokenness finds expression in the Lurianic conception of the shattering of the Divine vessels. We need not dive deeply into the mystical to appreciate that God, at least as we relate to Him, and He relates to the world, lacks wholeness.

To take Reb Nachman’s idea forward to Yom Kippur, we can enter the synagogue and the holy day, bearing all the burdens that we carry on our backs, the pekalach, as they are called in Yiddish, and leave them behind. We approach, in all our hutzpah, begging for renewal because God, more than we know, understands the pain caused by bearing so much baggage, helps us spiritually undress and plunge into the waters.

In the words of Rabbi Akiva, “Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean” (Ezekiel 36:25)”

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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