No day of the year is so filled with promise as Yom Kippur. In Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner's unforgettable words, Yom Kippur contains the potential not just to be a better person (bessere mentsch) but a completely different person (andere mentsch).
Yom Kippur is a day of rebirth. Just as the convert to Judaism is like a newborn infant by virtue of his acceptance of the Torah, so too can we become a new person on Yom Kippur. Conversion requires immersion in a mikveh, which symbolizes rebirth. And HaKadosh purifies us, as if in a mikveh, on Yom Kippur: "Rabbi Akiva said, 'Happy are you, Yisrael. Before Whom do you become purified and Who purifies you? Your father in Heaven. . . and it says, [G-d is] the mikveh of Yisrael'" (Yoma 85b).
THE REBIRTH OF YOM KIPPUR comes about through reconnecting to our most essential self, and thereby wiping off all our accumulated excrescence. That process is symbolized in the Kohen HaGadol's service with the two goats. The two goats had to be identical in every respect – in appearance, size, and value.
That identity, writes the Maharal, teaches that the two seemingly opposite tasks – the sprinkling of the blood of one goat in the inner sanctum of the Temple, HaKadosh HaKadoshim, and the exile of the other, bearing our sins, far from civilization – are two sides of the same process. The blood of the goat (the blood most similar to that of a human being) represents our life force. When offered in the Holy of Holies, it proclaims that the essence of our life is there.
If our essence is attached to the Holy of Holies, sin becomes something external, easily wiped away. Only then can those sins be sent away on the other goat to Azalzel.. The very name Yom Kippur means literally a day of wiping – the wiping away of our sins through recognition that they have no connection to our essential self.
That process of connecting to our essence on Yom Kippur is hinted to in a well-known Gematria. HaSatan has the Hebrew numerical value of 364. Meaning there is one day in the year, in which his power is absent. That is Yom Kippur, when the yetzer hara becomes again something external to us, just as prior to the sin of Adam HaRishon.
THE ESSENTIAL SELF to which we reconnect on Yom Kippur is the eternal soul that Hashem planted in us when He breathed into the nostrils of Adam HaRishon. That too is hinted to in the Service of the Incense in the Holy of Holies. The incense carried within the power to stop death. Its secret was revealed by the Angel of Death to Moshe Rabbeinu on Sinai, and by Moshe to Aharon HaKohen to stop the plague that broke out after Korach's rebellion.
The Rambam offers a seemingly more prosaic explanation of the incense in Moreh Nevuchim: The delicious aroma of the incense was necessary to overcome to stench of death created by so many slaughtered carcasses in the Temple. But the Rambam's explanation actually fits well with the more esoteric understandings of the incense.
The stench of death enters through the nostrils; the same nostrils into which Hashem breathed when He planted within Adam eternal life. Death represents the ultimate contradiction to eternal life; only with the sin of Adam did death enter the world. Just as eternal life entered through Adam's nostrils, so too is death apprehended most forcefully through the nostrils. The incense, which has the power to stop death, also overcomes the stench, as described by the Rambam.
WE ATTACH OURSELVES to eternal life only through the Torah. The eternal life Hashem breathed into Adam HaRishon was the capacity to receive Torah. All of Creation was contigent on the Jewish People doing so. Thus we recite the blessing, "Who has given us the Torah of Truth and planted within us eternal life," over the reading of the Torah.
Moshe Rabbeinu received the Second Tablets – the Torah that we possess today – on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah (Ta'anis 26b) interprets the "wedding day" of the King referred to in Shir Hashirim (3:11), as the Giving of Torah to the Jewish people. And Rashi clarifies that the Giving of Torah in question is that of Second Tablets on Yom Kippur.
The Second Tablets did not have the power of the First Tablets to remove sin altogether, and with it death. But they retained the capacity to turn sin into something external to our true essence, and thus capable of being wiped away.
Prior to Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Second Luchos, Hashem revealed to Moshe the 13 Attributes of Mercy, k'v'yachol, as the leader of the communal prayer (Rosh Hashanah 17b), hinting to fact that only a minyan of Jews can beseech Hashem's mercy through the recitation of the Divine Attributes.
Divine mercy is essential as well for receipt of the Torah. Even the most intensive Torah study requires for its success an element of Divine Mercy. One who gives up worldly pursuits and sits in learning, says the Gemara (Niddah 70b) should still "ask mercy from the One to Whom wisdom belongs . . . " Our prayer on Yom Kippur, through the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy, is to attach ourselves to eternal life through the Torah given on the original wedding day.
A dialogue between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Knesses Yisrael (Berachos 32b) captures the magnitude of Hashem's mercy. To Knesses Yisrael's lament that she has been abandoned HaKadosh Baruch Hu replies, quoting the verse, Can a woman forget her infant, so that she would not have compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I (Anochi) will not forget you (Yeshayahu 49:15).
"These" that may be forgotten refers to the Sin of Golden Calf, which was introduced with the words, "These are your deities, Yisrael," and which returned death to the world. That which can never be forgotten refers to Klal Yisrael's acceptance at Sinai of the commandments, which begin Anochi.
May we all experience the joy of being cleansed of our sins through attaching ourselves to the eternal life contained in the Torah.
I'm grateful to Rabbi Moshe Antebi (www.zyapublications.com) of Lakewood, upon whose superb presentations of the shiurim of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita, I have drawn extensively.