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Before God

Over the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been talking a lot about how we should feel as we enter this period of time, called the Ten Days of Teshuva (Repentance). We also call these days BEIN KESSE L’ASUR (Between the Hiddenness and the Tenth). Rosh Hashanah is called the Hiddenness because it’s our only holiday celebration which falls out when the moon isn’t readily visible. This reference is to a verse in the Psalm for Thursday: Blast the Shofar on the New Moon, while it is covered (Tehillim 81:4). According to the Vilna Gaon, this is the Psalm of the day for Rosh Hashanah, as well. So, Rosh Hashanah represents obscurity. What does Yom Kippur signify?

Of course, we call Yom Kippur the Tenth, because it falls out on the tenth of the seventh Hebrew month which we call Tishre. Of course, we also call these days ASERET Y’MEI TESHUVA, the Ten Days of Repentance. But what is the significance of being called the Tenth?

For those of us who live in a Base 10 numbering system, 10 represents the total number of building blocks for our mathematical world. Those ten digits combine to represent any amount in the cosmos. In Judaism, we have a similar situation with the Ten Commandments, and that’s why many authorities believe that those ten are, in fact, categories of Mitzvot containing all the 613 Mitzvot. Also, in Kabbalistic thinking there are 10 Sefirot (seven in this realm and three in heaven), and they represent the totality of the spiritual realm.

So, we begin this Teshuva process, at the beginning of Tishre, with some obscurity or uncertainty. The evening light source is dim; we’re in the dark. During this period we attempt, in incremental steps, to move towards clarity or, at least, better understanding of our situation. We both figuratively and literally shed more light on the topic. It’s not an accident that the best time to recite Slichot is just before the dawn, and to finish with the day’s first light, which represents the beginning of comprehension. 

What is this ‘clarity’ that we seek? Where can it be found? I believe strongly that the answer can be understood through careful analysis of a central verse about Yom Kippur: For on this day atonement shall be granted to you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Eternal (Vayikra 16:30). The word for ‘atonement’ is, of course, YICHAPER. Thus we call this holiday Yom Kippur.

We get the clarity from being ‘before the Eternal’. The Talmud describes the universal awe felt by the massive crowds as the Cohen Gadol declared the ‘glorious and awesome Name spoken out loud by the Cohen Gadol in holiness and purity’. This precipitated the falling onto the Temple stones in bended knee and prostrated body. It must have been amazing!

The S’forno suggests:

Absolute forgiveness, rehabilitation, can occur only in the presence of the Lord, which in turn can be achieved only by personal confession of one’s sin and one’s absolute undertaking not to commit such sins again in similar circumstances. The verse is introduced here to remind us that only the Lord Himself is aware of the sincerity of one’s teshuvah, one’s repentance.

That great medieval scholar explains that the clarity is God’s. Only God knows the level of sincerity achieved by each petitioner. That’s cool, but I’m more interested in each of us finding our own clarity.

Rabbeinu Bechaye makes a suggestion which I think helps:

This verse is an assurance for Jews throughout the generations that the Day of Atonement is a day set aside especially for forgiveness and pardon. On that day, the Israelites will be cleansed of all their sins against the Lord. 

I love that idea but, of course, not everyone agrees. The Rokeach interprets the process on Yom Kippur differently:

And I cry with the tears of my heart, streams of water flow forth from my eyes, for the fact that I did not observe Your Torah; the pain and crises of my heart have widened, and I have changed my attire to sack…and I admit my sins before You with the sharp travails of my heart…and I bemoan my sins…. May my bitter tears extinguish Your wrath, extinguish with the blood of my melted heart the fire I have enraged in You…and may the pouring out of my soul wash away my transgressions like water. 

Okay, that approach, perhaps, has its place, but I don’t think that’s the gist of our verse. I believe the Yom Kippur experience should be more like that described by Reb Aharon Lichtenstein, in his comment on that statement by the Rokeach:

Speaking for myself, my intuitive response is: Chas ve-shalom, impossible! Within the context of Yom Kippur, there is evidence to suggest that, at some point, the sun breaks through and there is light again. In the Shulchan Arukh, the ruling is that on the night after Yom Kippur one should eat a semi-festive meal, for it is a bit of a Festival (Rema, Orach Chayim 624:5). And to speak from my own interactions with the Rav z”l, if anybody needed something from him, the best time to speak to him was the night after Yom Kippur, when he was in the best mood of the year…So do we have joy in teshuva? We do not have the type of joy that is oblivious to the tragedy, that disregards the pain, and that tries to paper over the failure. All of those agonizing elements are present. But transcending all is the fact that we are there, to confront, to be challenged, and to respond. And we are there to feel the full power and glory of the momentous encounter between ourselves and God in the experience of teshuva.

We have to believe and hold tightly to the idea that God is waiting for us every Yom Kippur, and we must enter God’s Presence with the joy of knowing that God cares. Yes, we begin the process with doubt, trepidation and concern, but the Torah wants us to remember that if we approach God, the Presence will come, and then we can end Yom Kippur with the joyous sevenfold shout: The Eternal is our God!!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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