Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Power of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a day that seems to be the antithesis of human existence. I am not sure what the Jews in the times of the Beis Hamikdash really did, other than watch the Kohen Gadol perform the sacrifices and prayers, but I do know how we observe the day today. It is a day where almost every human action is prohibited. One must minimize their socializing, minimize their taking care of their body, refrain from all pleasures, and the day must be spent doing one thing, praying to G-D. If one thinks of Jewish holidays they think of the gathering of the family. Rosh Hashana, Succos (Sukkot), Chanuka, Pesach, Purim, Shavuous (Shavuot), and anything else that was decreed in the past and is no longer observed are all days where the Jewish family and community is brought together through meals and social customs. However, Yom Kippur is a day where there is no enhancement of the family or community. It is a day of personal introspection. What is the point of this holiday and why is it so different from all the other holidays?

First, let us explain the purpose of the holidays in general and then Yom Kippur specifically. Rosh Hashana is the holiday where we celebrate the new year and ask G-D to give us a good year. It is the "Day of Judgement," but only to the extent that it is when G-D decides if He will give us what we asked for or if He will punish us. However, we still eat and treat this day like any other holiday with social customs and everything. Succos, Pesach and Shevuous commemorate historical occasions that occurred in our benefit. We were protected in the desert for 40 years by G-D, we were taken out of Egypt by G-D and we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai from G-D. The other holidays were instituted by the Rabbis to commemorate great victories and happy days that effected all of Bnei Yisroel. That is why we celebrate on all these days and unite the community through eating and social customs.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a unique day. All of these other holidays don't have anything inherently spiritually special. Rosh Hashana, as a day, does not do anything for us. True, it is the day that G-D judges us, but the day itself is not special (you will understand what I mean once I explain Yom Kippur). This is also true of Pesach, Shavuous and Succos, these days are commemorations of events, but they themselves do nothing. However, Yom Kippur,as a DAY atones for our sins. One needs only to live through Yom Kippur and follow the laws of the day and it atones all of a persons sins, or does it?

The Rambam quotes the halacha (Hilchos Teshuva 1:3), "The essence of Yom Kippur atones for those that repent for it says (Vayikra 16:30) 'This day will atone for them.'" The Kesef Mishna points out that there is an argument between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Chachamim (Wise men). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi maintains that Yom Kippur does atone for a man's sins EVEN IF he does NOT repent. However, the Chachamim argue and say that it only atones for a person that DOES repent. Either way, there is an unequivocal atonement happening on Yom Kippur. Even according to the Chachamim one need not go through all of the steps of repentance (listed in the Rambam) in order for Yom Kippur to atone for a man's sins.

From here we learn that Yom Kippur is a powerful day in and of itself. There is no commemoration, there is no celebration, there is only ONE thing we are trying to accomplish on Yom Kippur, repentance. A person needs to bring himself or herself to repentance in order for Yom Kippur to have real meaning, according to the Chachamim. This is why we try so very hard to repent on Yom Kippur. It is our ONE chance to gain atonement/forgiveness in an "easy" way. This is why we fast and pray all day. This day MUST be all about introspection, because we NEED to gain atonement. Repentance is extremely hard to achieve in our normal every day lives, Yom Kippur is a gift. However, as the Kesef Mishna points out, Yom Kippur will only atone for those that are brought to repentance ON the day of Yom Kippur. You could be evil or sin EVERY OTHER day of the year, but Yom Kippur will atone for you if you can achieve a true remorse on Yom Kippur.

There is no other day of the year that has such a special situation. Rosh Hashana has the shofar, Pesach has Matzos, Shavuous has learning, Succos has booths and the lulav with the Esrog, but Yom Kippur just has itself. We need to contemplate how amazing this idea is and the power behind it. G-D realizes a human being is simply that, human. We have desires and we make mistakes. All He asks of us is that we give Him ONE DAY. One day where we can show G-D that we truly love Him and wish to connect to Him. This is why our final judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur, because G-D knows that we make mistakes, many mistakes. However, if we can pull it together for just ONE DAY, G-D will view us favorably.

This is the uniqueness of Yom Kippur and why it is THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF THE YEAR. Elul and the ten days of repentance are leading up only to Yom Kippur. We are preparing ourselves to have the best possible Yom Kippur, similar to how someone would train to do well in a marathon, sporting event or anything else important to them. If we just entered Yom Kippur cold, could we possibly hope to give our all? We spend FORTY Days preparing for a reason, in order that G-D judge us favorably BECAUSE we show Him who we really are. The other 364 (353 in lunar days) is not who we truly are, but just a shadow of ourselves. The true us appears on Yom Kippur.

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