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Yom Kippur 5774 — 09/11/2013

Yom Kippur 5774 — 09/11/2013

[Like rain drops which form from moisture on earth rising aloft, teshuvah starts with a small stimulus down on earth.  This prompts Gd to help him, as the Sages say (Yoma 30b) A person who comes to purify himself, is helped from Above.

However if, Gd forbid, Israel does not do teshuvah, they will be redeemed nonetheless, for Gd sends His stream of abundance like dew even without stimulus from below, saying For My sake, for My own sake do I act [Yeshayah 48:11].

[R. Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690–1764), Ya’arot D’vash, First D’rashah, Elul 5503 (1743) trans R. Avraham Yaakov Finkel]

The Ten Days of Repentance bagan last week with Rosh haShanah and come to their climax this Shabbat with Yom Kippur.  Over the course of the last few months we have been discussing the activity that takes place in Creation – does it come from Gd’s side or does it come from the side of creation – that is, from us.  We haven’t come up with a definitive answer, probably because it is the nature of the question that it does not map properly to the reality it is attempting to describe.  Needless to say, this conundrum has been wrestled with by our Rabbis and Sages throughout the centuries, and they have associated various sides of the question with different features of Jewish thought and practice.  R. Yonatan Eybeschutz associates the two sides with Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, so now is a good time to consider our question from that angle.

Rosh haShanah is the time when the world was created, as we say after each of the shofar blowings in the service – today is the birthday of the universe.  Therefore it is obvious that all the activity comes from Gd’s side.  The entire stimulus for creation could not have come from creation; it could only have come from Gd.  Our Sages tell us that this impetus came out of Gd’s benevolent nature.  Since Gd wants to do good (presumably rather than just being Good), it was necessary to have recipients of this goodness.  Therefore He created those recipients, and breathed into them the breath of life.  But this action was totally from Gd’s side.  Think of the “spirit of Gd hovering above the waters,” like an eagle hovering above its nest.  The beating of the eagle’s wings itself stirs up the nest; perhaps similarly we can think of Gd’s hovering above the waters as causing the waters to rise in waves – the waves of creation.

In contrast, Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness based on our t’shuvah.  Now as we know, t’shuvah really means return, in this case return to our Source in Gd.  For in order for Gd to have created us with free will and our own creativity, He had to leave space for us to individuate and to make the choices that make us humans, and not robots.  However, when Gd as it were casts us out into this “empty” space, He creates a separation between Himself and His creation; we feel this separation as a sense of alienation and anxiety, and we long to close the gap.  We attempt to look inward, at our thoughts and our behavior, and correct them where they need correction.  This stimulates a corresponding reaction from Gd; as much as we long to return to Gd, Gd wants us to return, and He offers us help in this process.

Naturally, since we are mere finite creatures, the stimulus we can provide is infinitesimal compared with the infinite reaction that Gd can provide.  Nevertheless, there are many physical examples of a microscopic cause that gives rise to a macroscopic response.  A genetic mutation is a wonderful example.  A tiny change in one base pair of a creature’s DNA can lead to major changes in the conformation of a particular protein, and that in turn can lead to macroscopic changes in the morphology of the creature.  As our Sages teach, Gd tells us, “Open for Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle, and I will open for you one the size of a hall.”  In other words, in our t’shuvah, we need not be concerned that there is actually an infinite distance between our finite selves and infinite Gd.  That distance is only from our limited perception; from Gd’s point of view, there is actually no distance at all!

At the end of both tochachahs in Torah (directly after the one at the end of Vayikra / Leviticus, and a number of verses after the one in Devarim / Deuteronomy) Israel is promised that eventually we will do a proper t’shuvah, and be restored to Gd’s good graces.  This is so that Gd’s plan for creation – that the creation separate, individuate, expand and finally reintegrate with Gd – may be realized.  In other words, as the quote from Isaiah makes clear, Gd acts for His own purposes, whether or not we “cooperate.”  From our point of view of course, it is preferable that this t’shuvah be generated from our side, as our reward is thereby greater, having earned our closeness to Gd rather than having it handed to us on the proverbial silver platter.  Yom Kippur is Gd’s sublime gift to us that allows us to begin the process of return to and reintegration with Gd.  For a few hours we transcend our physical selves and devote ourselves entirely to our inner, essential nature.  Let’s all make best use of this precious gift of time!  An easy and meaningful fast to all.