With the onset of Yom Kippur, we still might feel ourselves distant from God. This distance seems so pronounced because the process of ‘teshuva’ – repentance – remains daunting. How do we, so caught up in who we are, actually bring about the kind of change which will make reconciliation with God possible? We are afraid we simply lack the strength to make it possible. Consequently, we feel trapped in who we have become. Our personal darkness holds us, making us victims of fate rather than shapers of our destiny.
It is possible that the sages chose the haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur to combat this bleak assessment of the human condition. Isaiah’s prophecy opens with the following pronouncement: “[The Lord] says: Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all stumbling blocks from My people’s road!” (57:14)
Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) understood this message to be aimed at those returning from Babylonian exile. God would make it easy for His people to return to their homeland both physically and spiritually. The road would be cleared and the path would be paved. Any obstructions would be removed. Kimche identified Israel’s enemies as the major impediment to their return and God would ensure that their return would be unimpaired.
Rashi, however, viewed this prophecy totally in spiritual terms. God tells His people that it is their task to prepare the way for God to enter their lives by battling their evil inclinations. In other words, according to Rashi, God expects us to do the hard work necessary for our reconciliation with Him.
Rashi’s message seems to put us back at square one. What happens if we are not up to the the task? Rav J.B. Soloveitchik (20th century US) softens Rashi’s message. For him, “clearing the highway” is a joint effort. We clear the highway to make it possible for God to enter our lives, for without Him, we would be incapable of doing teshuva (fixing ourselves) and readying ourselves to reconcile with Him. God, who created human beings, knows our weaknesses. He comes, figuratively, to knock at our doors, welcoming us to leave our evil ways, all out of His great love for us. He cannot abide leaving us broken down and abandoned. God wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggle. And it is Yom Kippur which is the ultimate reminder of God’s intervention to raise us up even when we are bowed low. (Yemei Zicharon, pp. 243-4)