Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur (Wanderings)

Two Faces of Yom Kippur

Two (or three) phrases are constantly used to describe this season: Yemei teshuvah—Days of Repentance (or Yamim Nora’im, “Days of Awe”) and Yom ha-Kippurim—the Day of Atonement. We tend to think of this period as a continuum, united by a single theme, but in fact, the underlying concepts of teshuvah and kaparah, repentance and atonement, are radically different, perhaps even diametrically opposed.

Teshuvah means repentance: contrition, regret, turning, even a kind of rebirth experience. It is rooted in a sense of sin, of wrongdoing, of being on the wrong path, of shame, even guilt for how one has lived one’s life, at wasted opportunities to be a better person; and it is charged with a desire for moral and spiritual renewal. Theologically, it is based on the sense of standing before the bar of God’s judgment and being found wanting; these are Days of Awe because God is seen as manifesting Himself in all His awesome majesty: the liturgy for Yamim Noraim abound in expressions of this idea (ובכן תן פחדך..). But even though this particular season is set aside for teshuvah, the notion of repentance is really conceived in Judaism as a constant process. Every day, we are told by a Rabbinic dictum, one must seek to do teshuvah; a person is judged every day; nay, every hour, even every minute, and must act accordingly.

On one level, Yom Kippur is the culmination of the days of teshuvah which began with the month of Ellul. Rambam describes Yom Kippur as “the time of teshuvah for all” (Hil. Teshuvah 2.7). Hence, we repeated over and over again, even before the final meal and in every prayer throughout the day, Viddui: the Great Confession, an alphabetical litany of every conceivable kind of sin one might have done.

But there is a second theme of Yom Kippur, that from which it derives its name, which is very different: kaparah. We cry out to God: סלח לנו, מחל לנו, כפר לנו—“Forgive us, pardon us, atone us.” And the message of Yom Kippur is one of kaparah: “And God said: I have forgiven, as you have spoken” (Num 14:20). In the Temple of old, on Yom Kippur the High Priest would confess the sins of the entire people of Israel, placing his hands on the head of the sa’ir la-azazel, the goat that sent out into the wilderness: “And the goat carried their sins upon him into a wild land” (Lev 16:22). At the end of this ritual, the crimson thread tied to the altar turned white and the people rejoiced, knowing that their sins had been forgiven. And when the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, his face was radiant and he made a great feast for his family and intimates, and all the people rejoiced.

In later ages, Yom Kippur was marked by a special sublime joy. Rav Soloveitchik used to say that whoever had not seen the faces of the Jews leaving the synagogues in Vilna after Neilah of Yom Kippur cannot understand what was lost in the Holocaust.

Teshuvah is a manifestation of what might be called the prophetic moment: the ceaseless demand for moral integrity, for both personal perfection and for justice and decency in the life of society. And in its light, the job of the rabbi, the preacher, the prophet, is to ceaselessly chastise the people, to raise the bar, to demand moral and religious perfection. To the man of teshuvah there are no holidays. And, in theological terms, it envisions God as a stern, demanding King seated on the Throne of Judgment or, in Midrashic-Kabbalistic terms, Middat ha-Din.

Kaparah means forgiveness; it is the deepest expression of God’s love, of His acceptance of us as human beings in all our weakness and frailty, with all our conflicting needs, urges, fears and desires, ever torn between trying to do the good and our natural impulse to seek pleasure and comfort, to live for the self and in the moment. The paradigm for Yom Kippur is God’s forgiveness of the sin of the Golden Calf—a forgiveness granted only after Moses prayed, beseeched, and cajoled Him for forty days and forty nights. It is based on an image of a loving, almost maternal God (Av ha-Rahamim = “the wombed father’), who cannot help loving and forgiving His children no matter what: Middat ha-Hesed (see on this HY I: Ki Tisa [= Torah]). And this process, like that of teshuvah, also begins from the start of Ellul, Hodesh ha-Rahamim veha-Selihot, the month of compassion and forgiveness.

We cannot understand the economy of Divine rule, the secrets of how God runs His world nor, indeed, exactly what is meant by kaparah. But as human beings we can speak of the psychological counterparts of these traits in our own lives. Teshuvah is the voice that calls upon us to constantly better ourselves—if you will, the super-ego. Kaparah is the voice of self-acceptance, the realistic awareness of our own limitations, that one is only a human being and as such is bound to fail much of the time, and that one cannot “drive oneself crazy” with impossible demands on oneself. Somehow, both of those voices are the authentic voices of Yom Kippur.


Post a Comment

<< Home