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Parashat 09/15/2010

Yom Kippur
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

This year Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat; it is the only Shabbat on which one fasts.  If any other fast falls on Shabbat (such as the Fast of Gedaliah this year, the day after the second day of Rosh HaShanah) it is put off (generally until Sunday).  Yom Kippur however, is not a mournful fast – quite the contrary, it is a Yom Tov – a good day, a day of transcendence, and therefore quite in line with Shabbat.  Indeed, Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton – a Shabbat of Shabbats, it transcends and encompasses everything that Shabbat is and more.

The Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur we are to “afflict our souls” – v’initem et nafshoteichem.  The root ani can have several meanings in Hebrew.  It has the meaning “to afflict” or “to humble” as in our phrase.  It can also have the meaning “poor” as in lechem oni = “poor [person’s] bread” = matzah that we eat at Pesach.  The word used for soul is nefesh, which is the level of the soul closest to the physical of the 5 levels of the soul that our tradition identifies.  It is the level of the soul which is most responsible for interacting with the outside world – receiving sensory impressions and directing the body to act.

Thus it appears that we could interpret Torah’s mandate for Yom Kippur to be that we should “impoverish” our interaction with the outside world.  We are instructed to withdraw from sensual pleasure, indeed to withdraw from anything finite, and become all soul, all spiritual beings.  Thus our Sages tell us that on 364 days out of the year our “evil inclination” is allowed to try to attach us to the physical; if we give in to its blandishments we will be imprisoning our soul and keeping it from uniting with Gd.  On Yom Kippur however this permission is rescinded, and we are free to detach ourselves as completely as humanly possible from the material world.  Our souls are allowed to soar to otherwise impossible heights, unimpeded by common human needs and desires.  It is this soaring aloft of the soul, and its union with the infinite Divine Source whence it sprang, that purifies our bodies and atones for our sins of the past year.

There is a debate among our Sages whether or not Yom Kippur atones by itself, or if it requires us to do t’shuvah in order to be effective.  Perhaps we can look at it this way: If we give ourselves over to the Day, and refrain from those activities that are forbidden, and spend the day in sincere prayer, doing whatever we can to draw ourselves closer to Gd, then this certainly is at the very least a form of t’shuvah, return, to our innermost spiritual essence.  Thus the day is structured to give atonement, but only if we give ourselves over to it.  The most powerful medicine will never heal if we leave it sitting on the shelf.

Gd in His grace and mercy has given us this most holy of days to draw us near to Him, for our benefit and also to fulfill the very purpose of His creation.  For Gd’s sake and for our own, let us make the most of this precious opportunity.

An easy and meaningful fast to all.