How are you all? Remember I made a round up of High Holiday Services in Manhattan and I spoke about KJ’s Beginners’ Services? Well, about ten years ago I gave a speech at KJ’s Beginners’ Services on Yom Kippur. I recently found it and thought you might enjoy reading it. Wishing you a Gmar Tov!
Good Yom Tov Everyone! First of all, I am honored to be speaking to you today, A Unique Day, a Unique Day Given to a Unique People.
Last year one of my Business School professors said in her blunt Israeli way, “on such and such day, we won’t have class. It is Yom Kippur and I have to fast.” She smiled and said, “I’m a Jew and that’s what we do.” As I thought about what I was going to talk about today, her words re-sounded in my head. “Why is it that we feel such a connection to Yom Kippur?” I wondered. Many of us might not step into shul an entire year, but we will go to shul on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur every Jew becomes more aware of his or her Jewish roots. “Why is it that on Yom Kippur every Jew feels some spiritual inspiration?” “What is it about Yom Kippur and the Jews?”
A Jew is part physical and part G-dly. As it says in the Book of Job, “man is a piece of G-d above.” Maimonides points out that on Yom Kippur the Jew is to “rest” from certain physical activities. We are to fast, to refrain from work, from bathing and annoiting, and from relations, in order to transcend our physical selves. Instead, we spend this day in prayer and meditation, becoming conscious of what is at the core of our being.
At this core of the Jew is a soul, a soul which the Gemara refers to as “an actual part of G-d”. The Gemara also teaches us that the Jewish soul has 5 layers: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida. Each of these is an expression and function of the soul. Only on Yom Kippur do Jews read five distinct prayers through out the day: Kol Nidre, Shacharit, Mussaf, Mincha and the fifth and final prayer, Neila. These five prayers correspond to the five levels of the Jewish soul. As the day progresses Hashem reveals the different levels within the soul of every Jew until he reaches the prayer of Neila which corresponds to the Yechida, the highest level of the soul, where a Jew is one with G-d.
So what is unique about Yom Kippur is that on this day the Jew is able to reach the highest level of his soul- that which is most intimately bound with G-d – the yechida! Yom Kippur was the day on which the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would enter the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, to experience a direct bond with G-d. He and G-d’s revealed presence!!! That was it, nothing else. In a microcosm, this state of connection is indeed what every Jew experiences on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur the Jew has the ability to connect in an indescribably profound way with G-d.
Furthermore, the Book of Proverbs refers to the Jewish soul as “a lamp of G-d”. The pasuk says, “ki ner H”, nishmat adam” – the lamp of H” is the soul of man. A lamp has a flame that surges upwards, as if to tear free from the wick. But, as it surges upward, it also pulls back, tightening its grip on the wick, which is compared to the physical body. A tension exists: On the one hand, a flame desires to escape the wick, on the other hand, the flame cannot spread light unless it is attached to the wick. Analogously, G-d gave us souls with a yearning to transcend the physical world, yet His ultimate intent was that our souls be anchored to the physical world, connected to a body. Thus, the most profound description of our reality given in the Torah is incredibly real, it is the tension that we feel constantly through our day- the joining of our spirituality with our physicality.
In fact, let’s look at what happened on this day, the 10th of Tishrei?
On the 10th of Tishrei, we received the Second set of the Ten Commandments; the second set of tablets. And what differentiated this set of tablets from the first one? This may come as a surprise to many of you. It certainly was to me. The Second set of tablets, which we received today, the 10th of Tishrei, is characterized by the element of Human Construction! This time we did not just receive “the handiwork of G-d” – as the Torah describes the delivery of the first Tablets. The second time around, Moshe Rabeinu had to carve the tablets. G-d said to Moshe: “Carve yourself two tablets of stone, like the first.” So now the human being has a role, some work to do in this godly delivery, right? G-d continues to say to Moshe, “and I shall inscribe upon them [the tablets Moshe carved], the words that were on the first tablets which you have broken…” So, on the 10th of Tishrei, we the Jewish people, received our second set of the Ten Commandments, inscribed by G-d upon the tablets carved by Moses’ hand.
So then on Yom Kippur, the day given to us to allow our spiritual core to be revealed, a day that pushes our spirituality into our conscious experience, also has to do with our physicality. Yes, and very much so.
Our Rabbis teach us that Jews are in this world for tikkun olam, to perfect this world; they say: complete the work of creation that Hashem started. G-d wanted more than just a realization of His original blueprint for existence, more than a “First Tablet” world that is wholly His handiwork. He welcomed to partner in His work of creation. And, incidentally, He gave us 613 ways to do this, 613 mitzvot to do in this world; so that we should perfect it. In fact, so crucial is this element of creative work in this world to the Jew that Moshe Rabeinu- the Jew whose soul was at the highest level, at a constant state of yechida, the highest connection with G-d- Moshe, did not want to leave to Gan Eden. He did not want to die. Because Moshe wanted to stay in the world to do mitzvot. Because in Gan Eden we don’t get to do mitzvot.
So now we know why we’re connected to Yom Kippur. We are connected because as Jews we have a G-dly soul, and this soul is naturally striving towards H”- its Source. And today is the most potent day to feel this. So then the question is, what does the day, when we can tap the most into our highest spiritual level, have to do with Teshuva?
And this also has to do with our human condition, because by making us vulnerable to the human condition, H” also gave us the freedom of choice, thereby allowing for the potential to fail. But when we fail, when we become vulnerable to our human condition, we enter into a state of being that is the springboard for something great – for Teshuvah – for Return; Return, to our spiritual potential. Teshuvah is the natural expression of the positive spiritual potential, which all Jews possess. Moreover, Teshuvah means reestablishing an awareness of this G-dly core, and making it the dominant influence in our lives. It is in Teshuva that we see the revealed, practical application of this level of the soul that we can tap into today.
Today, on the climax of these past ten days of Teshuvah, we can tap into the highest level of our soul, that which has no blemish, that which is G-dly, the yechida, and we are to let it influence the other lower levels of our souls. That is, our conscience (chaya), our intellect (neshama), our emotions (ruach) and the physical faculties of our soul (nefesh), should all be inspired by the yechidah. Yom Kippur, thus, should not be an isolated spiritual event. The holiness of Yom Kippur, its spiritually uplifting influence that touches every single Jew across the world, is intended to inspire changes in our conduct throughout the year.
Maimonides (based on the Talmud) describes the service of Yom Kippur in the Temple, and concludes with the description of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, going home after the service. “What relevance to the Yom Kippur service does the description of the High Priest’s return home have!?” The answer is that this is precisely what Yom Kippur is all about!!! On Yom Kippur, today, we have to think of what happens afterwards, of how to make the spiritual feeling of today be a propeller for change in the way we lead our lives as Jews in this world. Yom Kippur is a unique day given to unique people- people who possess a G-dly soul- to take the part of their soul that is highest, singular, unique, and make it a part of all aspects of our personalities and our selves.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, a life in which we should only grow in ways to express our spiritual potentials so that we deserve the coming of Moshiah speedily in our days. Amen.