Will the Real Yom Kippur Please Stand Up?
Why was the 10th of Tishrei chosen as the Day of Atonement?
The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Moshe Rabbeinu spent 120 days with the Almighty (at the time of Matan Torah.) How so?
We know that Moshe ascended the mountain on the 6th of Sivan to receive the Ten Commandments. We also know he was there for 40 days and nights.
He descended from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz, saw the people sinning with the Golden Calf and smashed the two tablets of stone. He spent the next two days rebuking the people, and then – on the 20th ofTammuz – went back up the mountain for 40 days and nights.
He returned briefly to the nation and then – for a third and final time – ascended Har Sinai for another 40 days on the 1st of Elul. With atonement complete, Moshe descended the mountain on the 10th ofTishrei with a new set of the Ten Commandments. On that very day, God forgave the people for the sin of the Golden Calf and hence that important date was fixed forever as a Day of Atonement for Am Yisrael.
Rashi describes similar events, though he is a little more specific when explaining the purpose of each set of 40 days.
The first 40 were obviously meant to be the only 40 days. However, once the people sinned and the first set of tablets had been destroyed, Moshe spent the second 40 days pleading Am Yisrael’s case. At the conclusion of the ‘trial,’ on Rosh Chodesh Elul, God informed Moshe that the people would be granted a second chance and He instructs him to ascend the mountain again, for another 40 days, to receive the second set of tablets.
Therefore, according to Rashi, the first and last set of 40 days were preparation for the receiving of the Ten Commandments, whilst the middle 40 were days of rectification and repentance.
Rav Chaim Sabato notes that the 40 days prior to Yom Kippur, starting from Rosh Chodesh Elul – which is today a time for increased repentance and introspection – are parallel to the last Biblical set of 40 days, whenMoshe Rabbeinu stood on Har Sinai preparing himself to bring the second Luchot to the people.
However, surely it was the middle 40 days – commencing on the 20th ofTammuz and ending on Rosh Chodesh Elul – that served as days of repentance for the sin of the Golden Calf? The last 40 days were a consequence of the teshuva of those middle days. Would it not be more appropriate to dedicate those middle 40 days for penitence and celebrate Yom Kippur on Rosh Chodesh Elul?
Rav Sabato notes that Rashi actually anticipates the question and even alludes to the answer.
Regarding the last set of 40, the Torah states they should be like the first 40, full of religious elevation and goodwill, as opposed to the middle group of days which were really days of anger (that gradually subsided.)
From these telling comments, perhaps we can deduce that there are in fact two stages of repentance. In the initial stage, reflected by the ‘middle 40-day period,’ man repents for his transgression and pleads for atonement. But we are not to be satisfied with ‘mere’ forgiveness. We don’t just want to be pardoned; we don’t just want to ‘calm’ the Almighty’s ‘anger.’ We want to be restored to our original, elevated status. The middle 40 days are days of supplication that conclude with exoneration and the last 40 days have the objective of restoring us to our original status. They are days of love and happiness.
Rav Sabato’s suggestion is beautiful. It exposes Yom Kippur for what it really is. Not simply a Day of Atonement, for if that were the case it would be much better placed at the start of Elul. Yom Kippur is also a day of purification and restoration – Kapara and Tahara.
We do not merely wish for forgiveness, to live another day. We want a full cleansing; a new start. That is exactly what the last 40 days were all about. Despite having blatantly rejected the initial Revelation at Sinai by worshipping idols and immersing ourselves in immorality, we had managed to completely wipe the slate clean by Yom Kippur, as if this abominable scandal had never happened. Hence Rashi’s comment that the last days were full of love and elevation just like the first days.
When compared to the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is a day of unprecedented mercy.
As a youngster, I tended to equate Yom Kippur with Tisha B’Av. Even though the former is a Torah commandment and the latter a temporary day of mourning initiated by our Rabbis until our final redemption (may it come speedily in our days), the halachic similarities are too obvious to ignore: abstention from eating and drinking, the removal of shoes and the stringent restrictions regarding washing, bathing and cohabitation. As such, I saw Yom Kippur as a sad day.
But nothing could be further from the truth. We have already seen that the first ‘Yom Kippur’ was not simply a day of atonement but a day of historic restoration. Here we are talking about absolute atonement – a glorious day, especially when put into its Biblical context.
Could we imagine a greater sin than the Golden Calf? Just 40 days afterHar Sinai, the masses turned their back on the Almighty. Their commitment of “Na’ase VeNishma” were seemingly words uttered in the emotional frenzy of the hour, only to be forgotten as soon as they thought their beloved leader was never coming back. The severity of this episode is unparalleled, yet we were already able to start afresh by the 10th of Tishrei.
That’s why this day is one of mercy par excellence. The message is “let bygones be bygones. Don’t dwell on the past. Learn the lesson and move on.” If we appreciate this, our approach to Yom Kippur will be transformed.
Now we can understand a reason for the physical restrictions. Even if we were allowed to eat, it would be an annoying distraction from our task over the next 25 hours – to make the most of every second of this awesome day.
At Midreshet HaRova, where – Baruch Hashem – we have enjoyed a very unique Yom Kippur service for over 15 years, we always aim at making the most of this special day. And that is why we do not have a substantial break after Mussaf. If we truly understand the import of the day, a break is simply irrelevant. Imagine this: a convicted criminal stands in front of a judge who has offered him a chance for a reprieve – but not just any reprieve, he has the chance of deleting his criminal record. The accused says, “Thanks, Your Honor, but if you don’t mind, I want to get my statement over with quickly so I can get some sleep this afternoon!”
I am not referring to the needs of individuals. Obviously some people fast better than others and a break helps people regain a little strength for Mincha and Neilah. And of course one is not supposed to endanger one’s health. I am referring more to the community as a whole. I think we should be aiming to create an intense, purposeful and yes, joyful atmosphere which – through our actions – expresses the crucial importance of the moment.
After all, this is the Day of Absolute Atonement! A day we should be approaching with knowledge, belief and happiness. We are that convicted criminal. After all, look at everything we have done wrong over the last 12 months. We deserve anything we get!
Yet here we are running towards our Judge with enthusiasm and anticipation! We know for sure that if we show genuine remorse, He will give us a totally new lease of life, a new identity. Our police record is about to be trashed!
We are about to be given the Ten Commandments once again, despite having been the direct cause of their destruction the first time round!
Rav Soloveitchik alludes to a similar theme, explaining there are two progressive aspects to Yom Kippur. He distinguishes between the Hebrew words – kapara –atonement, and tahara – purification.
The first component – atonement – is referred to in Vayikra, 16:30: “For on this day He will atone for you.” Indeed, this is also reflected in theKohen Gadol’s prayers, when he requests ‘atonement’ for himself and the people. The second feature is purification.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that on the one hand, transgression dooms us to immediate punishment, but it also creates – de facto – impurity within our very spiritual being. Even if we were to be punished for our misdemeanors, the damage to our inner soul will not simply disappear.
The initial atonement (from Rosh Chodesh Ellul) invokes forgiveness –kapara – which serves as a defense mechanism against the punishment. It creates a virtual protective wall that shields us from the punishment we really deserve. But that kapara will not reinstate our soul to its previous level of holiness. That is achieved by tahara, the ultimate goal of Yom Kippur.
Again, we see the same idea we mentioned earlier – the wonderful potential of a day that not only atones for us and protects us from any punishment, but also affords us the opportunity to return to our original status, to reinstate our soul to its rightful place.
Having said that, Rav Soloveitchik notes that whereas the concept of atonement is automatic, a gift of God, the reality of tahara is not. That calls for action by Man. The Day of Atonement is perhaps so called because atonement is granted to every Jew on this day, irrespective of his real efforts. However, if we are to merit tahara, we will need to make some real decisions, and make sure we carry them out!