Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yom Kippur (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on Yom Kippur, see the archives to this blog, at September 2006.

Two Kinds of Love

In the prayer Ahavah Rabbah (“Great Love”), we speak of the giving of the Torah as a manifestation of the Divine love. Far from being a stern, forbidding, negative code of laws, the Torah is seen as the supreme expression of Divine love: as an apotheosis of the Divine; as the embodiment of Wisdom; as the tool He used to create the cosmos; as God’s beloved daughter, whom He has given in marriage to His beloved people Israel. The very fact that He gives us laws and statutes as guidelines in navigating the maze called human life is itself perceived as an act of love. Nevertheless, because it contains sanctions and proscriptions, it can also arouse feelings of fear and anxiety lest a person fall short of the standard set by the Torah.

Yom Kippur represents another kind of love. When speaking to Moses in the Cleft of the Rock, God revealed a love that forgives, that excuses, that erases and covers up our sins (see what I wrote on this at length in HY I [Torah]: Ki Tisa). A man may enter Yom Kippur stained with sin like crimson; through God’s purifying grace, he becomes pure white. One might compare this to a father who makes certain demands of his son, hoping to mold him in a certain direction, to teach him a certain approach to life. When he fails to live up to expectations, or even rebels, the father is disappointed, and may even be angry, but ultimately he accepts his son, simply because he is his son and he loves him.

Many people think of Yom Kippur as a severe day: as a day of melancholy, when we fast and dwell upon our sins and shortcomings and failures. What joy can there possibly be in that? But in truth, it is a day of reconciliation: the process of searching out our sins, of doing teshuvah in whatever way we manage to do so, is already completed when the day enters. The Vidduy already recited at Minhah, before the final meal, is the fruit of that process of contrition and Heshbon Nefesh, of what people today might call a process of intensive “self-work.” Once Yom Kippur begins, all is love and grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. Thus, some Hasidim refer to it simply as Yom ha-Kadosh, “the Holy Day,” a day filled with spirituality and elevation. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik used to say that there was no sight so which, for him, conveyed the essence of Eastern European Jewish life as that of Jews leaving the synagogue, in Vilna or elsewhere, at the end of Yom Kippur, their faces reflecting an inner holiness and purity.

To Tell the Story

Yom Kippur remains almost the only day of the year (perhaps along with Seder night, in the home) when Jews otherwise distant from the tradition come to the synagogue or participate in some Jewish ritual. What is the tremendous drawing power of this day?

Rav Soloveitchik, in a talk found in his recently-published Mahzor, states that there are two sides to every mitzvah: the empirical, objective halakhic parameters, and the emotional feeling, the experiential resonance. He recalls from his childhood the special atmosphere felt in the home, in the synagogue, even in the Jewish street, during the Days of Awe—an atmosphere of nostalgia or longing—which he felt as a small child, even though he was far to young to understand what such concerns as sin, repentance and forgiveness were all about.

He goes on to speculate whether modern Jews still feel this. It would seem that many people have lost some of the naïve, simple faith of our forebears—even some of the pious and observant among us. Many find it hard to accept the image of the Books of Life and Death lying open before the Almighty, each person being inscribed therein. Yet we still feel the magnetic power of this day, drawing us to the synagogue. Perhaps the modern Jew realizes, in an intuitive way, that this day is one that epitomizes Judaism, even if he doesn’t quite know how to express it.

I am reminded of a famous Hasidic story —told, variously, by Buber, Agnon, Scholem and Idel (each of the latter two using it to conclude a central book). When the Baal Shem Tov needed to perform some difficult task—perhaps to save Jews somewhere from calamity—he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire, did certain yihudim, mystical meditations, and it was done. A generation later, his disciple, the Maggid of Mezhirech, no longer knew how to light the fire, but still knew the place in the forest and the yihudim—and that sufficed. One generation after him, in turn, Reb Moshe Leib of Sasov no longer knew the yihudim or how to light the fire, but he still knew the place in the forest—and that was enough. Finally, when Reb Yisrael of Rizhin had to accomplish a similar task, he no longer knew any of these things, but sat in his big rebbe’s chair and told the story—and that too sufficed.

So too, perhaps we modern Jews must begin by simply telling the story of Yom Kippur, and of what it meant to Jews in ages past: that there is one day in the year holding deep reserves of spirituality, of holiness, if we but know how to find the key. If we cannot articulate it in words or tenets of belief, the special melodies of the liturgy—particularly the stately, solemn melodies of the Maharil for the Kaddishim and so on, known as “deoraita” niggunim—can evoke the feelings that belong to this day.

Earlier we mentioned Rav Soloveitchik. In that same Mahzor, one of his students describes him as “a man of Yom Kippur.” He felt kedushat hayom very intensely; the day was a particularly central religious experience for him; and it was said that he was happiest during that day.

In a rather different way, S. Y. Agnon (probably the most famous resident of my own new neighborhood of Talpiyot) was also a “man of Yom Kippur.” Agnon was already a different type of Jew—one who was simultaneously inside and outside Jewish religious experience. He was an observant, externally pious Jew. But he often seemed to look at the Jewish tradition with a certain sweet, gentle irony, fraught with ambiguity. It was impossible to tell whether he believed in “everything” or nothing—as literary critics like Baruch Kurtzweil and Arnold Band have debated incessantly.

Yom Kippur was of central importance to him. He complied a volume, Yamim Nora’im, that serves as a valuable compilation of midrashim, customs, and stories relating to any and every aspect of the days from the month of Elul through the end of Yom Kippur. Several of his most interesting short stories also focus upon Yom Kippur. In one, he tells of a man who sets out to go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, and on the way encounters one obstacle after another. He finally arrives at nightfall, just as the worshippers are leaving the synagogue after Neilah. He decides to make up for it by making his own Yom Kippur, spending the entire following day fasting and praying, reciting all five prayers of the traditional liturgy by himself, on the roof of his home. This is a metaphor, perhaps, for the modern Jew, who longs to be part of the tradition, but does not quite know how to get there, and may hold fast to it and strange and unexpected ways.

Gemar hatimah tovah to all!


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