The Power of Yom Kippur

The Power of Yom Kippur


 “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you from all your sins; before the Lord you shall be purified” [Lev. 16:30].


It is fascinating to note that while Yom Kippur is the most ascetic day of the Hebrew calendar, a twenty-five-hour period wherein eating, drinking, bathing, marital relations, bodily anointment and leather shoes are all forbidden, it is nevertheless considered a joyous festival, even more joyous than the Sabbath (Yom Kippur, for example, nullifies the seven-day mourning period after the death of a close relative, whereas the Sabbath does not).


The great Hasidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would often say, “Even had the Jewish tradition not commanded me to fast during our two major fast days, I would be too mournfully sad to eat on Tisha B’Av and I would be too excitedly joyous to eat on Yom Kippur.”


From whence the excitement, and from whence the joy? It seems to me that Yom Kippur is our annual opportunity for a second chance, our possibility of becoming forgiven and purified before God. On the festival of Matzot we celebrate our birth as a nation; seven months later on the festival of Yom Kippur we celebrate our rebirth as human beings.


On Pesach we renew our homes and our dishes, routing out the leavening which symbolizes the excess materialism and physical appurtenances with which we generally surround ourselves; on the Day of Forgiveness we renew our deeds and our innermost personalities by means of repentance.


Despite the hard work entailed in pre-Pesach cleaning, and in due deference to the hardy Jewish men and women who spend so much quality time tracking down all traces of leavening and thoroughly destroying them, such a physical cleaning job is still much easier than spiritual cleansing.

Such a repentance is at least a two-step process, the first of which is kappara (usually translated as “forgiveness” and literally meaning “a covering over”) and the second tahara (usually translated as “purification” and literally meaning “a cleansing.”).


These two Divine gifts of the day correspond to the two stages or results of transgression. The first is a stain or an imperfection in the world as a result of an act of theft or the expression of hateful words.


The second is a stain on the individual soul as a result of his/her committing a transgression. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik believed that kappara – paying back the theft, asking for forgiveness by saying I am sorry, or bringing a sacrifice to the holy Temple – removes the first stage.


Tahara – the repentance of the soul, the decision of the individual to change his personality and to be different from what and who he was before – removes the second. Kappara is an act of restitution, utilizing objects or words; tahara is an act of reconstitution of self, which requires a complete psychological and spiritual recast.


Clearly kappara, restitution – paying the debt, bringing the offering, beating one’s breast in confession – is much easier to achieve than a reconstitution of personality. How does Yom Kippur help one pass the second phase? How can an individual on a particular date acquire the requisite spiritual energy and profound spiritual inspiration to transform his/her inner being to be able to say: “I am now a different person; I am not the same one who committed those improper actions?”


I believe the answer is to be found in the manner in which we celebrate Yom Kippur. It is a day when we separate ourselves from our materialistic physical drives in order to free our spiritual selves to commune with God. We leave behind our homes and good clothes; our cars, wallets and credit cards; our business offices and cell phones; our physical drives for food and sex; and remain in the synagogue for a complete day, garbed in simple white clothing before the loving Creator of the universe, Who is ready to accept, forgive and purify us. The purpose of this separation is not to make us suffer but rather to remove ourselves from our usual physical and materialistic surrounding and find ourselves wholly in the presence of the Divine. The gift of Yom Kippur is that God Himself, who was after all the One who gave us our soul, our portion of God on high, is the one who on this day purifies our soul as a special gift. In the words of Maimonidies, "Yesterday I was far removed from God, a sinner; today I am close to Him, a beloved friend". As we repeat in our prayers, "For on this day everyone will be forgiven from all his sins; before God shall we become purified." It is the very close presence of the Divine that effectuates this purification.



This is the message of Rabbi Akiva at the end of the Tractate Yoma: Fortunate are you Israel! Before Whom are you purified and who purifies you – our Father in Heaven…. The Lord is the Mikveh of Israel: just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure, so does the Holy One Blessed be He purify Israel [Mishna Yoma 8:9].


This is the great power and great gift of Yom Kippur.


Shlomo Riskin


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