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Parashat 10/05/2011

Yom Kippur

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff


… Alternatively, in general, one vows to engage in or to refrain from an action, and only later realizes how difficult the vow will be to fulfill.  He is absolved of the vow because it was not taken by his “real self.”  He has now replaced the misguided pseudo-I with his true self.  Through teshuvah, he reverses the process of misidentification. (Machzor Mesorat haRav quoting R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik)

The central theme of Yom Kippur is, of course, t’shuvah.  While t’shuvah is generally translated as repentance the root meaning of the word is return.  Ordinarily we think of this as a return to Gd, which in practical terms means a resolution to live our lives more closely in tune with Gd’s Will as expressed in Torah, both Written and Oral.  R. Soloveitchik appears to be pointing out an additional aspect to t’shuvah – returning to our own selves.


The quote is from a discussion of Kol Nidre.  If you look at the translation of this prayer, you will see that it is not a prayer at all – rather it is a rather dry, legalistic paragraph that absolves us of any vows we have made in the past year.  Historically there are those who opine that it was a way for those who had been forced to convert, e.g. during the Spanish Inquisition, to return to Judaism; they cite the introductory phrase: anu matirin l’hitpallel im ha’avaryanim / We give permission to pray with avaryanim.  The plain meaning of avaryanim is transgressors, but in a bit of folk-etymology it is interpreted as Iberians.


In Jewish Law, a vow is absolute – “All that comes out of his mouth he shall do” (Bamidbar 30:3).  If one creates a prohibition on himself (by vowing not to eat apples for example) and he eats an apple, it is legally identical to eating bacon.  If one vows to bring a specific offering, the Rabbinical court can force him to fulfill that vow.  There is, however, an out.  If one can show a bet din of 3 members (who needn’t be Rabbis), or one expert in the laws of vows, that he made the vow in ignorance of the consequences of that vow, and that he regrets ever having made the vow, then the court or the expert can annul the vow.  The theory is that the vow was made in error, and is not only void from now on, but it is voided retroactively, as if it never occurred (much like the annulment of a marriage, as opposed to a divorce).  It is as if we have gone back in time and rewritten history.


R. Soloveitchik explains how it is that we can change the past: put simply, we recognize that the person making the vow and the person that we really are, are two different people.  The person making the vow was not, in fact, my real self.  Rather it is what R. Soloveitchik calls the “pseudo-I,” a covering over of the real “I” by layers of sin and encrustations of materiality.  What the process of t’shuvah has done is allowed us to peel off these layers, to understand ourselves at progressively subtler and more abstract levels, until all that is left is our pure, unadorned, infinite Self.  We do this on Yom Kippur in a rather straightforward way, by turning away from all material considerations altogether for a full day – no food, no drink, no bathing, no sex.  R. Soloveitchik is telling us that this is the connection between Yom Kippur and absolution of vows/Kol Nidre – that just as absolution of vows “turns back the clock” to a more pristine state, so t’shuvah can “turn back the clock” to a state prior to sin and prior to separation from Gd.  Ultimately, t’shuvah can return us to the level of Adam before the sin, a state of pure spiritual existence, where the body and the material world no longer come between our individual self and our universal, infinite Self.


R. Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement (which emphasizes ethics and building positive character traits) once said, “Most Jews work on t’shuvah during the period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  The more pious work on t’shuvah through the month of Elul [the month right before Rosh HaShanah].  But I say t’shuvah has to begin right after Ne’ilah!”  That is to say, t’shuvah must be a continual, round-the-clock and round-the-year process.  R. Soloveitchik’s insight explains why this is the case: t’shuvah is nothing less than becoming ourselves, of removing the barriers to actualizing our infinite potential, and infusing the infinite Holiness of the Source of creation into our individual lives and into our surroundings.  Yom Kippur and t’shuvah are Gd’s greatest gift to the Jewish people – let us be sure to use them wisely and well!


An easy and meaningful fast to all and a blessed 5772.