Friday, September 21, 2007

Yom Kippur (Rashi)

The Secret of Yom Kippur

What is the source of the power of Yom Kippur? More than any other day of the year, Yom Kippur is that time when nearly all Jews—“the far and the near”—gather together in the synagogue to seek… something. What is it?

Interestingly, there is one other occasion which rivals this attractive power, even to the otherwise assimilated: Pesah. Many, many Jews of all kinds celebrate the Passover Seder, in one fashion or another. And yet the two days are very different. The one is a day of celebration, of being with family, of eating and drinking, of talking and telling, of questions and answers. It celebrates the primal event of our people, the very beginning of our nation: the Exodus, a time of birth, of freshness. Appropriately enough, it falls in the springtime, when the world of nature is renewing itself and “the buds are seen in the land.”

Yom Kippur is a day of solemnity, of sobriety, just before the onset of fall and winter; a day that strikes a somewhat somber note: “who shall live and who shall die.” We neither eat nor drink. We spend the day, not at home, but in the synagogue. Even though we worship among others, we ultimately stand alone before God. Each person must render account of his deeds, good and bad. One cannot fall back on fellowship when it’s time to do teshuva.

As recounted in the Torah, Yom Kippur represents the great reconciliation between God and His people following the sin of the Golden Calf; the moment when Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, and God passed by, allowing him a glimpse of “the knot of His tefillin,” and revealing the secret of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. It is thus a time, not of newness, but of a second chance, of what some call “second innocence.” But this is an innocence born of knowledge—knowledge of our own weaknesses, of the evils of which ourselves and others are capable, of the dangers of moral failure, of the fantasies and desires lurking just beneath the surface. It “celebrates” what we do with our failure.

In a sense, Yom Kippur represents two opposing needs within our souls: for taharah, and for kaparah. On the one hand, we aspire to a higher, purer, finer self, for the integrity and uprightness brought by true teshuvah. None of us lives up to our highest expectations for ourselves, and our culture surrounds us with cheap and tawdry distractions. Yom Kippur is the end of a protracted period when we “seek God when He is to be found.” On the other hand, we feel the need for forgiveness and atonement for our past sins and shortcoming—even if we do not succeed in rebuilding ourselves. For in our “second innocence,” we know that even now we are not entirely innocent; we know our Achilles’ heels, and that we may slip up as we have in the past. We can only hope and pray for kaparah. Yom Kippur is the day when God sits on the Throne of Compassion, and wipes our slate clean through the very essence of the day.


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