The Joy of Yom Kippur
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
October 11, 2005
"Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: 'There were no yomin tovim to [Klal] Yisrael like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur" (Mishnah Ta'anis 4:5). The Mishnah goes on to describe how on both these days the unmarried girls of Yerushalayim would go out to the vineyards and call upon the unmarried young men to choose among them.
Why these two days? What do they have in common? On both days, HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave Klal Yisrael clear signs that He had become reconciled to them after grievous sins. After the Sin of the Spies, all those who reached the age of sixty that year would pass away on Tisha B'Av. They would dig their own graves, lie in them, and not awaken in the morning. On the 9th of Av of the fortieth year in the Desert, the cohort of those who reached sixty again dug their own graves. This time, however, they awakened in the morning. Thinking that they had perhaps miscalculated the new moon, they did this every night until the full moon of the 15th of Av made it clear to them that the decree of death had been lifted.
At that moment, continues the Rambam in his Commentary on the Mishnah, "They sensed the goodwill of the Creator and the withdrawal of His wrath and rescinding of His anger from them. Therefore they made [the Fifteenth of Av] into a day of festivity and joy."
Moshe Rabbeinu received the Luchos Shenios (the Second Tablets) on Yom Kippur, thus concluding a forty day period of reconciliation with Klal Yisrael, which began on Rosh Chodesh Elul. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe Rabbeinu was told to once again go up on the Mountain, indicating that the decree of annihilation had been removed. And on Yom Kippur the Luchos were returned to us, and with their return, the connection between Hashem and the Jewish People reestablished.
The same Mishnah in Taanis, expounding on a verse in Shir HaShirim, describes Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) as the wedding day of Hashem and the Jewish People. The Mishnah, Rashi clarifies, is referring to the second giving of the Torah on Yom Kippur. (The wedding day of the Hashem and Klal Yisrael was thus an appropriate one for young women to seek their husbands.)
ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THAT WEDDING DAY each year, Hashem gives us an incomparable gift, the gift of His forgiveness and the possibility of wiping the slate clean and returning ourselves to the state of purity of that original wedding day.
The joy of that anniversary gift is not just theoretical: It is something that each of us is capable of experiencing in a tangible fashion. On the face of it, there would seem to be nothing very joyous about reciting a long catalogue of our failures repeatedly over a period of 26 hours. Yet strangely the dwelling on our failings and weaknesses is also a cause of joy.
We emerge from Yom Kippur confident that we can change ourselves dramatically, and filled with hope that perhaps next year we will finally be able to stand in front of God giving account of our lives without acute embarrassment. The powerful drive to teshuva, return to God, inherent in the day, leaves us feeling capable of becoming, in Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner's memorably phrase, not just a better person but another person.
The joy of Yom Kippur is that of experiencing ourselves as free men. The Talmud points out that the numerical value of the word HaSatan is 364. We are thrall to our physicality 364 days a year. On Yom Kippur, however, we rise above ourselves and become spiritual beings.
After Yom Kippur, we do not just revert to our previous state. Having being freed from the power of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) for one day, we recognize it as a fifth columnist within, not part of our essence. Recognition that our sins do not define us fills us with an intense desire to extirpate from our personalities all that led to our various sins - to literally recreate ourselves.
The freedom of the Yoveil (Jubilee Year) was proclaimed on Yom Kippur with the blast of the Shofar. On the Yoveil, each Jew returned to his place – the one who had sold his land to his ancestral possession, the servant to his family – and the debtor was released from his debts. On Yom Kippur, we too are freed – freed from the dominion of our yetzer hara. And we too return; we return to our essential self, the one that existed prior to the yetzer hara entering inside.
The Shofar of Rosh Hashanah helps us return to that moment of freedom from the yetzer hara, to the pristine moment of Creation when Adam was aware of nothing besides his connection to Hashem. The blowing of the Shofar reminds us of the original breath of Divine inspiration: "And G-d breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he was a living being" (Bereishis 2:7). With that breath of life, Hashem placed within Adam HaRishon a portion of Himself. As the Ramban writes, "One who blows into the nostrils of another, gives him from his own soul."
Chazal ask who truly blows the Shofar. And they answer that Hashem Himself blows the Shofar, as it says, "And Hashem/Elokim shall blow the Shofar" (Zechariah 9:14). Just as Hashem blew from Himself into Adam, so He blows the Shofar. Something about the sound of the Shofar relates us to the Creator and the moment of Creation.
But we are twice created: once as a continuation of Adam; the second time as a continuation of the dispensation Hashem granted Moshe Rabbeinu after the Sin of the Calf when He told Moshe to ascend towards Him upon the Mountain. Moshe ascended amidst the blowing of the Shofar in the encampment (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 46). The completion of that process of reconciliation came with the giving of the second Tablets on Yom Kippur.
At the end of Yom Kippur, and on the Yoveil, we blow the Shofar to celebrate our freedom – freedom both from the yetzer hara and from the subjugation of others. The Shofar of Yom Kippur thus connects us back to Shofar of Rosh Hashanah and to the moment of Creation when the yetzer hara remained wholly external.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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