Yom Kippur: Remove the Muck

The Baal Shem Tov is said to have once heard a cantor confessing his sins on Yom Kippur to a joyful melody. The Baal Shem Tov asked him why he was so happy? The cantor replied that if he had the privilege to remove the garbage from the king’s palace, would he not rejoice? Our soul is a palace and during the year we muck it up with sin. On Yom Kippur, we remove the muck, and therefore, rejoice. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov appreciated this response.

This graphic description of Yom Kippur leads to a powerful question. If our palace is filled with refuse and dirt and we clean it out on Yom Kippur, is it ready for the king to enter? Don’t we need to bring in ornate furniture, majestic ornaments, decorative drapery, etc.? An ordinary person can settle in a clean but unadorned home, but what of a king, doesn’t a king need a palace fit for a king?

If all we do is remove the muck, how can G-d feel at home in our home after Yom Kippur?

Is It Ready?
The question becomes even more poignant when we consider the next question. In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah we pleaded with G-d in the early mornings for complete forgiveness. If G-d forgave our sins before Rosh Hashanah, what is left for Him to forgive on Yom Kippur?

The answer is that on Yom Kippur G-d doesn’t forgive our sins, He atones for them. Imagine you insulted a friend and he took offense. You asked for forgiveness and he forgave you, but he is still unwilling to trust you and resume the friendship. He lets go of his grudge, but the slate has not been wiped clean. He has forgiven, but he has not forgotten. He won’t bring up the past again, but he will be wary in the future.

If you want to restore the friendship to its former glory, you need to do more than beg forgiveness. You need to shine and polish the relationship to the point that the friendship can resume. You need to build trust, you need to demonstrate that you are a changed person, you need to show that you are worthy of resuming the relationship.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah G-d forgives our sins and agrees to give us a good year, but this doesn’t mean that He has forgotten about last year. Yom Kippur is when G-d allows Himself to act as if He forgot our sins. Atonement means to polish and shine the relationship to the point that it is restored to its original state.

Chassidic teaching explains that forgiveness removes the sin, atonement removes the negative traits that leads us to sin. The sin can be forgiven, but if the impulses that led us to sin are not corrected, we are likely to sin again. G-d can forgive the past, but if we don’t improve internally, He can’t expect us to behave differently next year. If we are still greedy, lustful, covetous, hateful, vengeful, or self obsessed, how can we ask G-d to trust us? Our inner palace is filled with muck. That we have somehow secured forgiveness is laudable, but we are likely to sin again.

This is the purpose of Yom Kippur. To get a deep cleanse. We spend twenty-four hours self examining, every trait, and facing our own truth honestly. We experience deep remorse and truly resolve to change. This sets the stage for rebuilding our relationship with G-d. This gives G-d a reason to expect that we won’t return to our sinful ways in the coming year.

But this only reinforces our original question. On Yom Kippur we remove the muck we excise our negative traits, but we have not yet replaced them with positive traits. We have certainly not replaced our sins with good deeds. How can we ask G-d to enter our palace, to restore our relationship, when all we did was secured forgiveness for our sins and acknowledged the traits that caused them?

He Cleans with Us
The answer is that Yom Kippur is a partnership. We don’t do the work by ourselves. We have celestial help. Our sages taught that the day itself brings atonement. Even if we do nothing at all, the day cleanses us. It is such a holy and uplifting day that it leaves a mark. However, the aura of this day is only helpful if we lend a hand. Yom Kippur only atones for those who repent. We must at least show that we care.

Let’s imagine this visually. It is Yom Kippur evening and G-d knocks on the door. He informs you that you have a deep-cleaning appointment and He is here to help. All He asks is that you open the door. Who in their right mind would turn their back on G-d and leave the door closed? Of course, we open the door.

Opening the door means to take Yom Kippur seriously. To examine our self truth, to engage in introspection, to experience true remorse, and to make genuine resolutions towards improvement. But in the end, we are not cleaning by ourselves, we have G-d at our side. If we do our part, G-d will clean along with us.

Now let’s imagine the palace. The king gave his son a palace. The prince was irresponsible, invited his friends to many parties, they trashed the palace, destroyed the furniture, sullied the decorations, and left refuse and dirt all over the place. The king got wind of this and told the boy that He must get rid of these friends or He will sever all contact with his son. The prince agreed and the friends were summarily dispatched.

The king hears the good news and decides to pay his son a visit. He knocks on the door one morning, and when the prince opens the door, his king informs him that he is there to clean the palace. The prince is shocked and overwhelmed. First with guilt, then with shame, and finally with incredible love and gratitude.

He opens the door and humbly lets his father in. The king looks around the house and can’t believe his eyes. But true to his word, he and his son pull out the broom and mop and set out to clean. The prince will never forget this lesson in love and royal responsibility. They spend the day together, the powerful king and the contrite prince, on their knees and up to their elbows in suds. They scrape and scrub and by the end of the day the palace is spick and clean.

The furniture is a write off, it needs to be discarded. The draperies are irredeemable, they need to be replaced. The palace is an empty shell, but it is clean and fresh. You could eat off the floor.

The king, happy, but spent, now looks at his son and says, “son, your palace is now fit for a king.” You know why? Not because the royal accoutrements have been replaced, but because the royal sovereign had done the cleaning. When the king does his own cleaning, he doesn’t need fancy furnishings. All he needs, is to know that the prince has learned his lesson and is a changed man. All he needs, is to know that together, he and his son, have worked hard and have turned over a new leaf.

When you wash your own floor, you take pride in it. When G-d washes and cleans your palace, He considers it a home fit for a king. That, my dear friends, is the power of Yom Kippur. The divine cleaning crew knocks on the door. All we are asked to do, is to let Him in.

Shanah Tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
Comments