Yom Kippur תשפ”ד

During the course of the year when we twice daily say the Shema, we recite the second verse,ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד  (Baruch shem ..) Blessed forever is Hashem’s Honorable Name, silently. On Yom Kippur, though, both in the evening and morning Shema, we recite that verse out loud. What is behind this custom?

Our Sages explain that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he heard the angels praising God with this special praise. He liked it so much that he taught it to the Jewish people when he returned from the mountaintop; but he instructed them to say it quietly. Rabbi Ami explains in the Talmud: “Do you know why? It’s like someone who stole a necklace from the royal palace. When he gave the necklace to his wife he told her, ‘You may not wear this necklace in public, you may wear it only in our home.’” Similarly, because Moses appropriated this beautiful praise from the angels, it would be inappropriate for us to flaunt it by reciting it aloud. Therefore, we say it silently all year. On Yom Kippur, however, since we are like angels ourselves, we can fully express it out loud with nothing to fear, just like the angels in heaven do.

This small change in how we recite the Shema brings clearly home to us the goal of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, I am supposed to reach the level of an angel! That is why I am saying this verse out loud! Reciting “baruch shem” out loud sets the tone for the entire day and allows us to focus clearly on what we wish to accomplish – to elevate ourselves to the level of an angel.

But why try to become an angel on Yom Kippur? Even if we accomplish this desirable goal and reach angelic levels, we know that the very next day, when we return to our normal routines, we are going to revert to regular human beings. So, what did we accomplish by being an “Angel for a Day”?

There is a profound lesson inherent in the idea that we could even try to be angels. If we learn the lesson well and incorporate it into our daily lives, it will change us forever.

We read in Genesis (2:7) how Hashem created Adam:

(ז) וַיִּיצֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה:

7. And Hashem G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.

A human being is the miraculous combination of an earthly body and a heavenly soul that comes from Hashem. That our body derives from the earth we understand; but what is the nature of the soul?

Our Sages describe the soul as a “piece” of Hashem – ,חלק אלוק ממעל  deriving it from the Torah’s description of how Adam received his soul, “and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life.” Why does the Torah need to tell us how Hashem inserted the soul into man? To teach us that the soul comes from Hashem Himself; for, when one exhales, the air comes from within him.  מאן דנפח מדיליה נפח. Similarly, the soul that Hashem blew into Adam came from within Him.

The true person is his soul. It comes here to this world to earn the spiritual reward that it will receive when it returns to heaven after this life. The soul is given a body, a spacesuit as it were, to allow it to function in this material world.

Yet the body and the soul are always at odds with each other. With its selfish desires and urges, the body is always demanding gratification, continually seeking the world’s forbidden pleasures. The soul, on the other hand, provides the rational voice of reason telling the body, “You can’t have that, it is prohibited to you.” Such is the human condition; the struggle never ends. When the body wins, our spirituality declines, and our earthiness expands. When the soul wins, our earthiness declines, and our spirituality grows. That constant tug of war underlies the purpose of our existence in this world, the goal of which is to overcome our earthiness to become spiritual. We accomplish this through performing the mitzvot, the spiritual power pills that Hashem has given us in His Torah. With every mitzvah that we perform we become more spiritual and closer to our goal.  On the other hand, with every sin that we perform we become less spiritual and farther removed from our goal.

Our Sages teach us that because we are a soul which comes from Hashem who is all good, we are completely good, our true self is holy and has only spiritual aspirations.

This concept was best expressed by Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud (Berachot 17a), which informs us that Rabbi Alexandri would add the following supplication to his daily prayers:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/א

ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם

Master of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that our true desire is to do Your will, but what is standing in our way? The leaven in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and the society we live in (the evil influence from outside of us). Please save us from them so we may do Your will with all our hearts.

Every Jew’s true essence is to do Hashem’s will. Stripped of the earthy body and the negative outside influences, we would naturally do only good. This is why we can aspire to be like angels on Yom Kippur. The sins that we have done do not penetrate to our essence and make us evil. Our souls always remain pure and holy, despite the mud on the windshield. The sins are a superficial blemish on our skin, so to speak, something that is external to us. Hence, becoming an angel is just a matter of scrubbing off all the sins that we have accumulated over the last year. By removing the external debris, we return our souls to the pristine state in which we received them.

        What is the process through which we remove the external debris?

        Hashem in His great mercy has given us the ability to do “teshuva” to repent and repair the mistakes that we have made. When we do a proper teshuva, we completely remove the sin from reality, and it is no longer there to bog us down.

There are three simple steps to the process of teshuva, but they must be sincere. If a person’s heart is not in it, it won’t work.

  1.  – Verbally, privately, admit the sin – acknowledge that we have disobeyed Hashem’s commandments – and own up to it.
  2.  – Remorse – feel truly bad for having done the sin to the point where you wish you could go back in time and pull it out of existence.
  3.  – Accept upon oneself never to do the act again. This follows logically from #2 because if a person would be ready to repeat it at the next opportunity, or even at some future time, he obviously doesn’t really feel remorse for having done it. 

Additionally, on Yom Kippur, the day’s holiness adds to the ease with which we can repent. If we use Yom Kippur properly, we can achieve the goal of becoming a pure soul again, like an angel, as pure and clean as the day we were born.

        What an accomplishment! After going through Yom Kippur and cleansing ourselves, when we return to the real world the next day, we should try to preserve our newly achieved state of holiness for as long as possible and not sully our souls with sins.

Even if we do falter and sin, knowing that the sin is not part of us gives us the impetus to cleanse ourselves immediately and restore ourselves to our previous pristine state.

To help us towards our goal of isolating our souls and removing the external debris, the Torah (Leviticus 15: 29-31) instructs us to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur:

וכט) וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל  מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם

ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ

לא) שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם

29. This is for you an eternal decree – In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and you shall do no work, not the native or the proselyte who dwells among you:

30. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed:

31. It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; an eternal decree:

These three verses discuss Yom Kippur. The tenth day of the seventh month, the 10th of Tishrei, is Yom Kippur. It is a day of Shabbat, a day on which we rest from any מלאכה  – constructive work. In two of the verses, the Torah instructs us to afflict ourselves on this day.

What is the meaning of this affliction? Are we to place stones in our shoes or turn off the air conditioning?

Here is a perfect example confirming that Moshe was given the oral explanations of the commandments along with the written Torah.

In dictating this verse to Moshe on Sinai, Hashem told him, “Let me explain what I mean here. You will notice, Moshe, that in Scripture, only five things are referred to as “ענוי  – affliction.“ Those five things (and Hashem listed them), are the only afflictions to which I am referring in this passage.”

The Talmudic Sages scoured the entire written Torah to locate the five things that Hashem referred to as an affliction. Despite the word ענוי  – affliction – or different forms of it, appearing 80 times in Scripture including many different types of afflictions, by invoking the Torah’s 13 principal interpretive rules, the Sages eliminated most of those usages, distilling them down to just the five that apply to Yom Kippur.

A quick look at this list reveals the obvious purpose for these prohibitions: to minimize bodily pleasure on Yom Kippur. This, in turn, allows us to concentrate on our spiritual endeavors and reach higher spiritual heights on this holy day.

Items a – d all seem to fit.  But how does the last one, not wearing leather shoes, constitute an “affliction?” Sure, a good pair of leather shoes feels good on our feet, but so does a good pair of non-leather sneakers! Why are we allowed to wear comfortable sneakers but not leather shoes? 

Our Sages teach us that a person’s soul has various levels of holiness. During our existence in this world, we have access to only the tail end, or the foot, so to speak, of our very holy soul. Because that part of the soul is considered the foot of the soul, our body, which serves as its vessel, is like its “shoe.”

And just as shoes allow our soft feet to walk on all types of hurtful terrains and in all types of substances that would hurt or dirty our feet, the body allows our soul to “walk” in a world that would otherwise be hostile to it. 

Moses experienced this concept when he approached the burning bush to receive his first prophesy. Hashem told him, “Remove your shoes from your feet.” Our Sages explain that Hashem was telling Moses, “For you to receive a prophesy, you must remove your physical body from your soul. This way, your soul will be free and unfettered by the materialistic body, and you will be spiritual enough to receive a prophesy.”

So, we understand the shoe concept. But why is only leather prohibited. 

To answer this question, we return to the first set of clothing ever created (Genesis 3:21):

(כא) וַיַּעַשׂ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם:

21. And Hashem God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them:

Hashem made the very first set of real clothing for Adam and Chava. These were regal, respectable garments made of skin, or fur, that completely covered their bodies in place of the fig leaf aprons that they had made for themselves. These clothes served the purpose of covering the body to minimize its prominence and the desire for it, allowing the dignity and holiness of the soul to shine forth and provide man with a clear understanding of who he really is. The human body is a beautiful thing; yet man can easily make the mistake of thinking that he is his body and nothing more. This is why modest dress is so important in Judaism: It puts the materialistic body out of sight and pretty much out of mind. The Torah teaches us that we are a soul, and our bodies are merely the shoes that allow our soul to “walk” in this earthy world.

This is why only shoes made from animal skin are forbidden on Yom Kippur. The leather shoe, which represents the body and was the very first material used to cover it, is reminiscent of the body’s earthiness and its need to be covered; it is much more than a matter comfort for our feet. This is what we are trying to minimize on Yom Kippur. 

        King David said in Psalm 103:14

(יד) כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנו:

Hashem knows what we are made of and what the temptations of being human are. We have it from inside and outside. It is not that we are malicious or mal intentioned against Hashem. But our earthy component, the body, and the society in which we live, causes us to do the things that we do. Hence, we ask, “Hashem, please see me as I stand before You today, on Yom Kippur without my body pulling on me and influencing me. This is the real me. I want to do Your will.”

As we earlier read in verse 30:

30. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed:

What is it about Yom Kippur that makes it the day of awesome forgiveness that Hashem Himself cleanses us of our sins?

The Mishna in Tractate Taanit (26b) refers to Yom Kippur as “Hashem’s wedding day.”

וכן הוא אומר צאינה וראינה בנות ציון במלך שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו ביום חתנתו וביום שמחת לבו,

-ביום חתנתו – זה מתן תורה

A nice idea. But what wedding are we celebrating here, and who is the bride?

The commentator Rashi explains. This refers to the second tablets with the Ten Commandments that Hashem gave the Jewish people on Yom Kippur. Hashem was the groom, the Jewish people were the bride, and the tablets were the wedding ring. This was the day that Hashem in His infinite love and mercy renewed our relationship with Him and forgave us for our previous sin, the golden calf and this is what has set this day in the Jewish calendar as a day when Hashem is in the mode of infinite love and mercy and is most forgiving of our sins. When we stand “afflicted” to fulfill the laws of Hashem as given to us in the Torah and ask for forgiveness, we are guaranteed to leave Yom Kippur completely free of sin.

 Our Sages ask:

Why, in the Shema at the onset of Yom Kippur, when our stomachs are full from the big meal that we just ate and we are fresh after a shower and are feeling pretty good, do we say the verse “Baruch shem …” out loud; yet, 25 hours later, in the evening service immediately following Yom Kippur, when we feel so holy from fasting and praying all day, do we revert to reciting the verse silently?

Our Sages answer that at the start of Yom Kippur our minds are focused on the upcoming holy day and its tasks. That is holy stuff, and, therefore, as we head into holiness, we are considered like angels already. Whereas, after the shofar has been blown and Yom Kippur is over, our minds return to thinking about the things that we need to do when we get home and about the days ahead. Because we are headed towards mundane matters, we are no longer like angels and must say it silently.

The Shema after Yom Kippur serves as a wakeup call going forward after Yom Kippur. After this amazing holy day, a day that was spent fasting and praying, we now re-enter the material world. I must take with me the lesson of Yom Kippur: that I am a soul encased in a body, and the sins that my body commits are just mud on the windshield that I can wash off at any time with teshuva. Confident with this knowledge, we can look forward to a great new year.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a healthy, happy new year!

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