‘The Agony of Defeat’ Yom Kippur 5780

‘One month before Rosh Hashanah, Jews of Sephardic descent begin waking up early to recite “Selichot”, literally “Pardons”, an assortment of prayers, supplications, and poems revolving around the theme of Divine forgiveness of our sins. About one week before Rosh Hashanah, Jews of Ashkenazic descent join their Sephardic brothers. Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim continue to say Selichot until the day before Yom Kippur.

As I was walking out of shul a few days ago, a friend of mine wished me a “Happy Tisha b’Av (Ninth day of the month of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash)”. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Look at the words of the Selichot we just read”, he said. “They seem less like Selichot and more like Kinnot (dirges recited on Tisha b’Av)”. His point is valid. While the Sephardic Selichot are more or less repentance-oriented, the standard Ashkenazic version sounds more like “We are being slaughtered. Why aren’t You helping us?” Here are some excerpts from Selichot that we read just this morning[1]:

“You turned away from and you abandoned those who cling to You, You disregarded the covenant you made with the three [forefathers], You have left us in the filth, broken and battered, wretched and sick with all kinds of disease.”

“Because Mount Zion is desolate, my face cringes with shame and my heart is astonished”

The second verse is taken nearly verbatim from the Book of Lamentations [5:17-18], read on Tisha b’Av: “For this our heart has become faint, for these things our eyes have grown dim. For Mount Zion, which has become desolate; foxes prowl over it”. Why are we moaning and groaning like it’s still Tisha b’Av instead of asking G-d to forgive our sins? Isn’t it time to move on to the next holiday?

An answer I once heard suggested that the fact that the Jewish People are “left in the filth and battered” by our enemies is an impingement on G-d’s honour. We are asking G-d to forgive our sins so that He should not look bad, to save us for His sake and not for ours. While this answer has its merits, I’m not convinced that it adequately answers the question.

Before we continue, we require some background: It is worth noting that Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur are qualitatively different than all other fasts in the Jewish Calendar. Only on Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur does the fast last for twenty-five hours, from sunset until nightfall of the next day. All other fasts begin at daybreak. Only on Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur is the fast accompanied by additional afflictions, including the prohibition to wash one’s body or to engage in marital relations. Nevertheless, while it might seem that Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur share the same roots, we will soon see that their stringencies come from completely different places.

The primary motifs of Tisha b’Av are death and mourning over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Mourning begins three weeks before Tisha b’Av, when we stop listening to music and holding weddings. The customs of mourning become gradually more prominent as Tisha b’Av draws closer: First we refrain from eating meat and bathing, until on the evening of Tisha b’Av we attain the same status of mourning as one whose dead relative lies before him – we cannot speak, don tefillin, or even sit on a chair. In an earlier lesson[2], we attributed the ramping up of mourning to the difficulty of crying and beating one’s chest with anguish over a catastrophe that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. To encourage mourning, the sense of loss is built up over time by gradually increasing the restrictions.

The motif of Yom Kippur is completely different. Fasting on Yom Kippur is not a sign of mourning. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, coming at the end of a six-week process in which we take a serious look under the hood and try to better ourselves. Yom Kippur, as the culmination of this process, invites us to come as close as we can to pure spirituality. Rabbi Avraham Borenstein, known as the “Avnei Nezer”, who lived in Sochatchov, Poland, in the previous century, teaches that the prohibitions of Yom Kippur are not intended to prevent rejoicing or to cause suffering, but to separate a person from his daily corporeal activities. On Yom Kippur, we are likened to angels and so we abstain from our mundane occupations. Hence, it is customary to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur in order to appear like angels. The prohibition to eat on Yom Kippur is not intended to forbid enjoyment or cause suffering. Rather, just like angels do not eat or drink, for twenty-five hours neither do we. Fasting on Tisha b’Av stems from spiritual depression while fasting on Yom Kippur stems from spiritual elevation. Tisha b’Av is symbolic of death while Yom Kippur is symbolic of rebirth. Tisha b’Av is infused with despair while Yom Kippur is infused with hope.

The different motifs of Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur are reflected in the difference in the way in which we relate to G-d on those two days. On Tisha b’Av, the prevailing feeling is that G-d has abandoned us. The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was a time of “Hester Panim” – “Hiding of G-d’s Face”. We cried out and all we heard was the echo of our own voices. We were left to the elements. We were utterly alone. On Yom Kippur, however, it is we, through our sins, who have abandoned G-d. And yet, on Yom Kippur, G-d waives standard protocol. On Yom Kippur, G-d calls us back. He returns to us. The prophet Isaiah exhorts the Jewish People [55:6] “Seek G-d while He can be found, Call to Him while He is near.” The Rambam, writing in the Yad HaChazaka [Hilchot Teshuva 2:8], teaches that while G-d is always ready and willing to accept our repentance, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur He is especially available. He “can be found”. He is “near”. He cancels all meetings and patiently waits by the door for us to return[3]. All we have to do is call.

We now have the background we require to explain the difference between the Ashkenazic Selichot recited before Yom Kippur and the Kinnot recited on Tisha b’Av. The Book of Lamentations is a graphic description of the suffering inflicted on the Jewish People by the Babylonians when they destroyed the first Beit HaMikdash. It describes fire, ashes, cannibalism and worse. It describes a defeated people who can do nothing but groan in pain. There is no hope for a better future. At the end of the book [5:21], the unidentified narrator cries out “Take us back, O G-d, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!” but in the very next – and final – verse, he returns to his despair: “For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us[4].” All is lost.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a time for hope. On Yom Kippur, G-d listens. On Yom Kippur, we do not merely cry out in pain. On Yom Kippur, we ask G-d – we challenge G-d – to come and rescue us. Referring back to the Selichot quoted above, immediately after we tell of our “filth and disease”, we say, “Come help [us] who are groaning and choking, raise us from the dirt and the dust!” Immediately after we describe the “desolate Mount Zion”, we say, “Shine Your light on Your holy Temple…You Who forgive iniquity, pass over transgression, and cleanse!” In Kinnot, we taste the ashes of defeat. In Selichot, we spit out those ashes and with G-d’s help we are victorious.

Being the Chosen People is not for wimps. There is all too often a great price to pay and we have indeed paid dearly over the years. On Yom Kippur, the Almighty G-d Who chose us is in earshot. If we call Him, He will answer. If we return to Him, He will return to us, His beloved Chosen ones.

Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Fifth day of Selichot before Rosh Hashanah.

[2] Parashat Re’eh 5779.

[3] The Hassidic masters refer to this period of time as “HaMelech ba’sadot” – “The King is in the fields”. He has left the comfort and safety of His castle to come searching for his children.

[4] So as not to end the reading on an unpleasant note, it is customary to repeat the next-to-last verse.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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