Yom Kippur is not simply another holiday. It is a revolutionary event that occurs once a year and completely reconfigures the universe and every single aspect of creation.
Each of the holidays on the Jewish calendar transports us to a level that is higher than the ordinary weekday. On regular weekdays, there are three prayer services: the “maariv/evening,” “shacharis/morning,” and “mincha/afternoon” prayers. These three services correspond to the three levels of the soul – “nefesh,” “ruach,” and “neshama” – that are housed within the body. The fourth level of the soul, “chaya,” is too lofty and expansive to be contained within the confines of the body, so it hovers just above our head, so to speak. On shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and yomim tovim (holidays), a fourth prayer service – “musaf” – is added to our daily regimen. This is because we are able to access the fourth level of our soul on account of the added spiritual energy that is invested into the world on these days.
There is also a fifth level of the soul, and it is called “yechida.” “Yechida” means “singular” or “unique,” and it represents a level that is completely unified with God’s ultimate unity. It is so “vast” that it cannot come down into this physical plane at all. There is only one day a year on which we recite five prayer services, and that is Yom Kippur. In addition to the “maariv,” “shacharis,” “musaf” and “mincha” services that we perform on other holidays, we also add a service called “נְעִילׇה/Neila” which is performed subsequent to the afternoon service just before the day of Yom Kippur draws to an end.
This fifth service of “Neila” is added on Yom Kippur because this is the one day a year that the energy of the fifth level of our soul, “yechida,” is manifested in the world. The rest of the year, our oneness with God is concealed so that we can continue to function as independent entities in a realm of multiplicity. Yet there are designated times throughout the year that the veil is lifted and we are reminded of the ultimate reality of God’s unity. On Yom Kippur we are exposed to this unity in a way that transcends all of the other holy days. While every sabbath, Rosh Chodesh, and holiday lifts us out of our mundane reality to enable us to glimpse our existence from a higher vantage, Yom Kippur transports us to a different dimension completely. While the other holy days provide us a glimpse beyond the veil, Yom Kippur removes the veil entirely and affords us not only a glimpse, but full exposure and accessibility.
This is why our conduct on Yom Kippur is so different from the other sacred occasions. Whereas it is a mitzvah to feast on the sabbath and the other festivals, on Yom Kippur we fast completely. Additionally, we refrain from marital relations, from wearing leather shoes, and from washing and anointing our bodies on Yom Kippur. On the simple level, these acts of abstinence are viewed as methods of self-mortification to chastise ourselves for the wrongs we have performed throughout the past year. But on a deeper and more essential level, we separate from the physical world on Yom Kippur not as a means of penance, but rather as an expression of our inherent Godliness. On this day, with the manifestation of our “yechida,” it is revealed that we are truly beyond the world. With this consciousness, refraining from food and physical engagements is not a challenge, but it is a natural expression of our most authentic self.
The effect of the “yechida’s” exposure on Yom Kippur is not merely that we are elevated to a lofty and transcendent dimension, but rather it fuses and unifies all dimensions and thereby alters the nature of the entire creation as we know it. On other holy days, we transcend the world, but then we return to it when the period of additional holiness concludes. We may have changed from the experience of elevation, but the world remains the same. On Yom Kippur, on the contrary, the very nature of the universe has been transformed because its essence and core has been exposed. In that experience of primordial revelation, everything superficial and extraneous fades away. It is as if the creation has come in contact with a light so hot and so bright that it instantly incinerates whatever is not essential and infinite itself.
Kabbala explains that all matter is a fragment of divine light encapsulated in a “kelipah” or shell. On Yom Kippur, when the source of all light is able to radiate freely into the creation, every “kelipah/shell” is burned away and only the light remains. This is how our histories are rewritten. It is not merely that our soiled garments and misdeeds are overlooked or even cast aside. Rather, they are consumed. Or perhaps more accurately, they are subsumed. What we discover on Yom Kippur is that even the blemishes themselves are Godly, and therefore they are not blemishes at all. If there is nothing that is not Godliness, then there can be no soiled garments. There can be nothing that ultimately conceals God because even the veils themselves are only layers of Godliness with which He has temporarily disguised Himself. With this awareness, all otherness vanishes and only God remains. This is true “at one-ment,” and this is the “kapara/atonement” that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, accomplishes.
Each of us is restored on this day to a level of absolute purity and innocence. It is not simply that we are forgiven for our past misdeeds, but it is as though we never transgressed at all. We are not innocent because our guilt has been excused or pardoned, but because there is no guilt that needs to be expunged. It is not merely that we are given another chance, but it is as if we are an altogether new or different being that never failed or erred initially. On Yom Kippur, we have come in contact with our yechida, and we have been reminded that the deepest aspect of our being is a Godly fragment that is one with every aspect of the creation.