Yom Kippur: The Handkerchief at the Train Station

View of the Railway across Chat Moss, from Bury’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1831 (Wikicommons, copyright-free)

There is a famous folktale about a young man who was traveling on the train through the countryside. The person sitting next to the young man noticed him frequently gazing through the window, timidly and very nervously. Every town the train passed through triggered the same intense staring out the window. Not able to contain his curiosity, the person asked the young man what he was looking for. The young man shared the following:

I grew up in a small town. My parents wanted me to grow up to be hard-working, conscientious, and honest. One day, I got drawn into burglary. With several friends, I began with petty crimes that became bigger and bigger, and bigger. Finally, the local police caught me. I was sentenced to time in prison. More painful than the time in prison was the shame I brought my mother, who did so much to raise me, to be honest, and dedicated. 

After a long time in prison, anticipating my return home, I sent my mother the following letter:” Dear mother, I know how much shame I brought on you and the family. You raised me to be honest and dedicated, and I did not follow that advice. I will totally understand if you do not want me to come back home. I do, however, ask you for one favor; please spare me the pain of rejection. I will be taking a train going through our town. If you would like me to come home and get off in our home station, please just wave your purple handkerchief at the station. If I see you waving your purple handkerchief, I will get off the train and come home. If, however, there is no purple handkerchief at the station, I will be spared the shame and continue to another stop and begin my life there”.

This was the reason the young man had his eyes glued to the window; he wanted to see if they had reached his hometown. If they did, he wanted to know if his family wanted him back or not. 

The older person was intrigued. He now joined in curiosity, looking out the window for the purple handkerchief as they approached the town. They suddenly saw a purple handkerchief, but it was not at the station. There were dozens of purple scarfs, handkerchiefs, and flags hanging from the trees, the lampposts, and the houses. As the train drew pulled into the station, the young man’s mother was standing with the townspeople who were all waving purple handkerchief. The message was clear: he was welcome back at home. 

On Yom Kippur, we come home. 

No matter what we did, no matter what we have been though, there is one day a year, when God is waiting for us to return; He awaits with endless love, regardless of what he had done or how much we had embarrassed Him. The welcome signs were all over. On this day, God loves us for who we are. This is the essence of Yom Kippur. 

“For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.” (Vayikra 16)

So powerful is the purity of Yom Kippur that the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 8:7) cites some opinions that it atones even for the remorseless and even for those who explicitly reject the essence of the day or the opportunity to be forgiven. 

Rabbi Shlomo Rabinovich(1801–1866), the first Rebbe of the Radomsk Hassidic dynasty, as well as the great Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, compare the concept of God forgiving on Yom Kippur even those do not deserve it to the following scene: a king once had an assembly where all were to gather—prepared and dignified. As the set time came close, the King noticed that many people were missing. The King rushed to the homes of those anticipated at the ceremony. When he saw they were not fully prepared for the ceremony, he ushered them into his royal carriage. The King’s desire to have them at the ceremony overrode the need for participants to prepare themselves to the fullest appropriate extent needed. That is what happens on Yom Kippur—God wants us to be close to Him. For this, our sins are forgiven in a fashion far more expedient than usual.  

 

There was once a French sculptor who made the most beautiful and perfect sculptures, magnificent stone art that would always look identical to what he was trying to replicate. His name was Auguste Roden, a world-famous sculptor. When asked how he does it, the world-famous sculptor said:” When I see a rock, all I see is an image I am going to create, then I go and peel off the layers that surround it.”

Yom Kippur is about seeing ourselves as God sees us—with love and forgiveness. 

Following every Amidah Yom Kippur, congregations often sing liturgy with the most beautiful words, words which encapsulate what Yom Kippur is all about, Ki Anu Amecha:

“We are Your people, and You are our God. 

We are Your flock; You are our shepherd. We are Your vineyard; You tend to us. We are the product of Your hands; You are our creator.

We are Your people, and You are our God. We are your statement, and You are the one who speaks to us. “

The atonement we achieve on Yom Kippur is not all about who we are, nor is it all about who God is—it is about the unique bond between God and His people. It is that love that prompts God’s forgiveness, and it is that bond that is to inspire our repentance. “Rabbi Ḥama bar Ḥanina said: Great is repentance, as it brings healing to the world, as it is stated: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely” (Hosea 14:5), which teaches that repentance from sin brings healing.” (Yoma, 86a)

The essence of the day and the special relationship it stands for is reflected in Yom Kippur’s name, not the day of forgiveness, but the Day of Atonement. Why does this choice for words matter so much?

The Webster dictionary definition for forgive is: “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)” or “to exact neither punishment nor redress.” These definitions are not about building a relationship; they are more about ceasing hostilities in a way akin to a ceasefire between two countries that are at war. Atonement is a bit better than forgiveness, yet it is not perfect. The dictionary term for atonement is “reparation for an offense or injury.” Indeed, Yom Kippur is about reparation, but more than just repairing this offense or the others. 

Looking at the biblical definition of Yom Kippur, the Torah says, “For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be purified from all your sins” (Leviticus 16). There is atonement there, but there is more—there is purification. More than purification, there is being “before the Lord—Lifnei Hashem.” Yom Kippur is a day in which we are to be reminded of who we are; we are reminded of God’s love for us. That is why we wear white, light candles, make the shehecheyanu blessing, and consider it a Yom Tov. 

King Solomon writes:” love covers for all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). When we love someone, they can do no wrong in our eyes; when we don’t love them, it is much harder to forgive. That love goes both ways. On Yom Kippur, God reminds us that He loves us. It is a day in which he says, let us spend time together. Everything can be forgiven. It is also a day for us to recognize who we are. To love ourselves and the divine spark within us. The key to Yom Kippur is our healed relationship with God. 

After conducting a large study on the matter, Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Srini Pillay wrote an article titled: “The missing rewards that motivate healthy lifestyle changes.” Published by Harvard’s medical school, he writes in his article:

“There are two kinds of rewards: hedonia and eudaimonia. Hedonia (H-rewards) includes superficial pleasures such as weight loss, looking good, and acceptance by others. These rewards are more concrete and often short-lived. Eudaimonia (E-rewards), on the other hand, refers to a sense of meaning and purpose that contributes to overall well-being. Connecting your lifestyle goals to E-rewards may help motivate you even more.”

On Yom Kippur, we connect our choices to our E- reward system—to whom we really are. We make sure to take any kind of material rewards such as eating and drinking out of the equation. No matter how hard we may beat our chests, this is not a day for guilt.

Sadly, sometimes we associate our spirituality with guilt; we do not see the state of our spirituality through the lens of God loving us. This approach has a cost, often an extreme one.  

Zero Mostel was a Hollywood star who famously played Tevya in Fidler on the Roof. He grew up in New York with eight siblings in a Hasidic family in Brooklyn. His real name? Shmuel Yoel. Family members used to tell him he is a gornisht, nothing. Because he was not the most studious boy or the one who went to synagogue every day, they judged him. They demeaned him. They saw his value through a narrow lens and spoke to him in a way that no child should ever be spoken to. When he first came to Hollywood, and the agent asked him for his name, he immediately responded: “Zero.” Mostel recalled”, When I came to Hollywood, I needed to choose a name. I decided to choose the name zero in honor of that family member.” That is a tragedy. All too often, we come to see ourselves or others through a narrow prism rather than reflect on God’s love to them and the relationship Hashem has with each and every one of us. 

Speaking to someone who had studied in Yeshiva(Rabbinical Seminary) for many years and has gone through intensive Talmudic training, I was shocked to hear what he had never learned. “You know what no one ever told me in my years in Yeshiva? No one told me God loved me.” 

We all need to feel loved. We need to recognize the lesson of Yom Kippur 

On Yom Kippur, are given God’s loving embrace. It is the day, like that same mother, God awaits us in the train station waiving a purple scarf awaiting our return. It is a day on which God, as King of the universe, leaves His own thrown and comes to us; we may not be fully ready, nor have we necessarily made all the amends we need to, but this day is special. Eitzumo shel Yom Mechaper, the very presence of the day attorneys for our sins. It is a day God embraces us both collectively and individually. Our close relationship with God does not stem from Him forgiving our sins—Him forgiving our sins stems from our close relationship. May the beauty and warmth of the day’s embrace remain with us throughout the entire year, making it indeed a better year. Shana Tova. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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