It…shall be a Shabbat [a holy, set apart day] of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian and well-loved author, in a descriptive comparison called Yom Kippur, “Judaism’s great sanctuary.” It is not a structure of hewn stone and stained glass windows intended to instill a hushed sense of awe when one enters its great vaults, rather it is a sanctuary “built of a day.” *
In Jewish tradition this day is regarded as the holiest day of the year; the day when, more than any other, the “gates” of heaven are open and one can respond to His call and enter the Presence of the Almighty. This understanding inspires the deep awe and reverence conveyed in the architectural elements of a physical sanctuary. On Yom Kippur one minimizes the emphasis on physicality, and puts material things aside as much as possible, in order to draw closer to the Throne of God and to experience, as it were, a face-to-face encounter with our Father and King.
DIE TO SELF?
The physical self-denial practiced in Jewish communities includes a twenty-five hour fast, from sunset the evening before, after a delicious pre-fast meal is enjoyed, until an hour after sunset on the day of Yom Kippur. One does not enjoy the luxury of washing or bathing and married couples refrain from sexual relations. Leather shoes are not worn as leather is considered more comfortable and ostentatious. Primarily, on this day of sacrifice, the life of the animals that provide the hide for the shoes is taken into consideration. Hence one sees a wide array of footwear in the synagogue and on the streets of Israel and in Jewish communities abroad, such as canvas sneakers, non-leather slippers or house shoes, plastic sandals and, these days, the inimitable Crocs!
Renowned German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (circa 1913) likened his experience on Yom Kippur as a “death” to self. He wrote:
“Man is utterly alone on the day of his death, and in the progress of this day he is utterly alone as well …as if he had died in the midst of life… And [then] God lifts up His countenance to this pleading of men.” **
To reflect the theme of death and burial, congregants usually wear white to the synagogue prayer services. Some Orthodox men wear a kittel over their clothes. A kittel is a special soft, white garment that is used as a burial robe. This is not a morbid concept for at the heart of Yom Kippur is the understanding that, in His compassion and mercy, God offers redemption and new life. As His children turn their hearts to Him and lift their cries of repentance, He is faithful to hear, to forgive and to redeem.
The wearing of the kittel, or other white clothes, also reflects the pure white, linen garments the High Priest donned on Yom Kippur before he entered the Presence of God in the Holy of Holies. On this the holiest day of the year, the holiest man would undergo an extensive ritual of purification, physically, mentally and spiritually, before he entered the holiest place on earth bearing the blood of sacrifice.
AZAZEL AND THE SCAPEGOAT
A highlight of the sacrificial ceremonies conducted on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem was that of the two goats. After emerging from the Holy of Holies and dressing himself in the glorious Golden Garments once again, the High Priest would enter the general Court of meeting.
Two perfect male goats would be brought before him and the assembled people. One goat was chosen by special lot to be sacrificed before God. The other would be designated to Azazel. The meaning of this word is not clear but is generally understood as demons, Satan, or hell. This goat was initially named the “scapegoat” in Tyndale’s Bible published in 1530. After the first goat was totally burnt on the altar as an oleh offering, the High Priest would “…lay his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all of the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat” (Leviticus 16:21). It was then, according to historical accounts, led off ceremoniously into the wilderness and pushed over a cliff to die.
Also recorded in the Talmud is the fact that a red cord was tied to its horn and a matching one hung on the door of the Temple. Miraculously, the cord would turn white as an indication of the death of the goat and that the sins it carried were atoned for. Interestingly, also recorded is the information that in the period “forty years before the destruction of the Temple” the cord no longer would turn white.
TESHUVAH – TEFILLAH – TZEDAKAH
The three central themes of Yom Kippur are Teshuvah – Repentance, Tefillah -Prayer and Confession, and Tzedakah – Charity or Righteous Deeds. These reflect the three areas of relationship that are interwoven in our lives; those with our selves, with God, and with others. In essence, repentance, teshuvah, is an examining of myself and taking action, wherever I see I have strayed, to return to my true path, which is with God – dwelling constantly in His Presence, walking in His ways and fulfilling the purposes He has ordained for me. Prayer, tefillah, is how I remain in close communion with God. Charity, tzedakah, is how I express my care and concern for others in active deeds. When these three areas are in balance, one’s life is filled with harmony, peace and joy, no matter the outward circumstances.
Further considerations of the three themes, in the context of Yom Kippur, are as follows:
1) Teshuvah – Repentance
The Hebrew word for repentance is derived from the root shuv – to turn or return. It illustrates that we have made an unwise decision, taken a wrong turn, and committed an action in thought, word or deed that is not true to who we are as a child of our Father. We have turned away from God and moved further from His Presence. We have sinned. Sin brings us into darkness, our understanding becomes clouded; we lose our way. By stopping to think and intentionally to engage in the process of repentance, that is, to recognize the sin, to take responsibility for it, and to confess it to God we, in effect, turn in our tracks and draw into the light of His Presence once again. The more quickly we learn to do this, an aptitude that only comes with continual practice, the more constantly we will walk in the Light of our Father’s Presence.
The Sages of Israel draw attention to an important distinction regarding repentance, confession and atonement:
Yom Kippur effects atonement for sins that are between God and humans; but for transgression between humans, Yom Kippur effects atonement only if one has appeased one’s fellow. (Mishna Yoma 8:9)
We cannot claim this for our sins toward our fellow man until we have made every effort to put things right with the person we have wronged; which begins with recognizing and acknowledging the wrong done or hurt inflicted.
The outstanding medieval theologian and philosopher, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or the Rambam, references four steps involved in our repentance towards others:
- To recognize and acknowledge the wrong committed [whether in action or verbally].
- To make amends, however possible, for any damage caused.
- To commit to oneself to not repeat the mistake again.
- Indeed, to not repeat the wrong when confronted with the same set of circumstances!
He concludes: “What is complete repentance? Perfect repentance is when an opportunity presents itself to the offender for repeating the offense and he refrains from committing it because of his repentance, and not out of fear or physical inability.” ***
Repentance is a gift from our merciful Father. The ability to repent, and the opportunity to acknowledge and rectify mistakes, offers us the ongoing hope of beginning again; on Yom Kippur and every day.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness O LORD!
2) Tefillah – Prayer and Confession
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting filled with prayer. A large portion of the communal prayer includes confession of sin. In the period prior to Yom Kippur, which includes the month of Elul, Rosh HaShanah and the Ten Days of Awe, one has had opportunity to examine the past year of one’s life and to recognize any misdeeds. During the communal confessional prayers it is customary to gently beat one’s chest over the heart with the right hand closed in a soft fist at each pronouncement of “For the sin”.
A portion of the central prayer, Viddui, reads:
Now may it be your will, Adonai, God of all generations,
To forgive all of our sins, to pardon all our wrongdoings,
And to blot out all our transgressions.
For the sin we have committed against You under duress or by choice,
For the sin we have committed against You openly or secretly,
For the sin we have committed against You in our thoughts,
For the sin we have committed against You with our words,
For the sin we have committed against You by the abuse of power,
For all these, God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
One of the opening prayers on Yom Kippur Eve, which is sung to a stirring, plaintive melody, is probably the prayer most recognized and associated with Yom Kippur – the Kol Nidrei (All Vows). It pleads that we be forgiven for any promise we made but were unable to keep. It touches a deep longing within for integrity, to be counted on to keep one’s word, to be trusted. Shimon Apisdorf comments regarding Kol Nidrei:
“I realize that… if I gave my word on anything then, without recourse to a higher authority, there is no backing out. …My word locks into place a reality that I can no longer undo. That reality, that word, binds me.” *****
Ideally, in a perfect world, to fulfill one’s word is what every honest person aspires to. Sadly, we discover that is not always possible in this broken world and we hand our disappointments and failures into the hands of our Father with Kol Nidrei, and determine to try again in the year to come.
In view of the powerful Kol Nidrei, a little prayer that precedes it often slips by unnoticed, Tefillah Zakah (Prayer of Acquittal). And yet, it expresses one of the most vital pleas, one that captures the very heart of Yom Kippur:
Since I know that there is no righteous person in the world who does not sin against his fellow man, whether monetarily or physically, in deed or in speech, therefore my heart aches within me…
May no person be punished on my account. And just like I forgive everyone, so may You grant me favor in every person’s eyes that they might also grant me full forgiveness. ******
A beautiful additional Mussaf prayer, prayed approaching the close of Yom Kippur, is a declaration of our inclination to sin and a plea to God:
We sin against Thee when we declare all noble striving to be vanity,
and despair of good ever triumphing over evil.
We sin against Thee when we do not consider the love, the beauty and joy in the world, but fret and grumble in our impatience and ingratitude.
Ve’al kulam Eloha slichot, slach lanu, machal lanu, kippehr lanu!
For all these sins our God, forgive us, pardon us, grant atonement to us.
Fashion Thou our hearts anew, and redirect our will in accordance with Thy purposes.
May a new spirit of loving-kindness unite us all in the endeavor to establish on earth Thy Kingdom of justice, freedom and Shalom.
3) Tzedakah – Charity
Practical help and financial aid are the most common forms of charity we can extend to those in need. This form of tzedakah is more than giving a gift out of kindness; biblically it is seen as a basic duty one to another. Often gifts of the heart, although intangible physically, are more difficult to give and yet can be far more valuable.
The greatest gift we can give to those who in some way have wronged us and caused us pain is forgiveness. A kind word, an understanding smile, a note of encouragement, forgiveness of a hurt – these have no measurable worth and yet can make a world of difference in a person’s life.
“It is the act of forgiveness that opens up the only possible way to think creatively about the future at all.”
Fr. Desmond Wilson
THE GREAT SHOFAR
One last great Tekiah blast of the shofar marks the close of Yom Kippur and the culmination of the Days of Awe. It echoes like the final closing of the gates of Heaven on the year that has passed and now all points forward to the year ahead. We are left with a deep sense of the power of the Almighty in whose Presence we have immersed ourselves and the reality that, in the words of the prophet Samuel:
The LORD kills and brings to life; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low, He also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them He has set the world.
(1 Samuel 2: 6-7)
At the same time we have an exhilarating sense of freedom and anticipation as we prepare to celebrate the Season of Joy – Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. We can enjoy the harvest of the “work of our hands” in gratitude and we can rejoice in our hope of the blessings to come.
With trumpets and the sound of the shofar make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
* Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, N.Y., 1975, 10.
** Quoted in Jewish Holidays, A Brief Introduction for Christians, Rabbis K.M. Olitzky and D. Judson, Jewish Lights Publishing, N.Y., 2007, 14.
*** Ibid., 15
**** Ibid., 28-29
***** Shimon Apisdorf, Rosh HaShanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit, Leviathan Press, USA, 2000, 97.
****** Ibid., 96