THE BEST DAY
The holiest day of the year, a day of forgiveness and atonement, Yom Kippur has the potential to raise us to the most elevated spiritual heights. Yet for many of us, it also presents a major difficulty.
The holiest day of the year, a day of forgiveness and atonement, Yom Kippur has the potential to raise us to the most elevated spiritual heights. Yet for many of us, it also presents a major difficulty. We have enough trouble lasting through the lengthy Shabbat morning prayers, let alone surviving an entire day spent in synagogue. Constantly flipping the pages checking how much longer we must endure the services, we are repeatedly faced with a question that will remain with us long after Yom Kippur is over: How come the services are so long? Why must we spend the whole day immersed in prayer? And in truth, these are valid questions. Certainly, part of the day should be devoted to prayer, but if Yom Kippur has such tremendous potential to elevate our actions and deeds, why not include other facets of Judaism into the service of the day? Why not spend part of the day involved in performing acts of kindness or other important mitzvot? Why must prayer be the entire focus of this ho! ! ly d ay? The answer, as we shall see, will not only make sense of the long drawn-out prayers, but will also provide some important insights into the very nature of Yom Kippur itself.
In order to answer our question, we must first step back in history to the beginnings of Yom Kippur. The Talmud tells us (Tractate Taanit 30b) that the date of Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, was not chosen at random, but rather has great historical significance. We all know that when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the first set of tablets, the Children of Israel, under the mistaken impression that Moses had died on the mountain, built for themselves a golden calf and proceeded to worship it, declaring it their god. When Moses descended from the mountain and discovered the horrible tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people, he broke the tablets as a sign of Hashem's anger and disfavor towards the Jewish people for their appalling sin. The people who only forty days before had stood at the highest spiritual level possible, had now sunk to this most depraved state. No longer were they worthy of receiving the tablets from Hashem, or even of having! ! Hashem dwell in t heir midst. They would have to work long and hard to fix what they had made wrong.
The Children of Israel, however, did not despair. They realized that they had sinned, and they now wished to amend their mistake. The Jewish people undertook a regimen of fasting and prayer to beg Hashem to have mercy on them. Moses ascended Mt. Sinai again, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, to pray face-to-face to Hashem on behalf of the Jewish people. Day after day, they drew closer to Hashem as they continued to beseech Him for forgiveness. Finally, after forty days, on the tenth day of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, Hashem informed Moses that He had forgiven the Jewish people. The Children of Israel, through their prayers and good deeds, had successfully restored their previous image. In fact our rabbis tell us that the Jewish people had ascended to the level of the holy angels! Only now were they worthy of absolute forgiveness and atonement. Only now were they worthy of receiving the second set of tablets which Hashem indeed gave to Moses on that very day, the tenth of Tishrei, with the Jews standing like angels at the foot of the mountain.
It was as a result of these events that these forty days, from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur, were marked as days to move closer toward Hashem. Although we may have strayed from the straight path during the rest of the year, we now are afforded the unique opportunity to get back on track. Each day we move higher and higher up the spiritual ladder until the awesome day of Yom Kippur when, if we have made the proper preparations the previous forty days, we stand before Hashem on the highest rung possible - that of the holy angels. As such, we must act and perform like angels. For this reason, we do not eat the entire day, for angels do not eat. Similarly, we wear only white, again to represent our status as angels. And it is for that same reason that the entire day must be spent in prayer, for as our rabbis tell us, the entire service of angels consists of only prayer. From the morning until the evening, the angels in heaven do nothing but pray to Hashem. Therefore, we also spend the entire day of Yom Kippur, from morning to night, immersed only in prayer, for on this day we are like angels.
Many people think of Yom Kippur as a day of melancholy and grief. Detailing sin after sin to ourselves and to Hashem, one can arrive at the conclusion that Yom Kippur must be one of the most gruesome days on the Jewish calendar when Hashem looks down upon us with disdain and scorn. Nothing could be further from the truth. As our rabbis tell us, Yom Kippur is one of two most joyous days of the year. At no other time are we so close to Hashem that we could even dare describe our faults in such detail. Only on Yom Kippur, as we stand pure and innocent like angels before Hashem, can we expect His absolute forgiveness and atonement. Yom Kippur is a day of tranquillity and purity that we welcome with joy and happiness.
Yoel Spotts Yoel Spotts, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a student at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and recently became engaged to Chavi Weiss of New Haven, Connecticut.
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