In the days leading up to Yom Kippur there are many thoughts that cross the mind. Essentially this is a time for analysis, a time to review our lives, and the way that we live them. To define and redefine our reason for being, to assure that we are indeed on the right track, headed for the destination that was meant for us.
When I was first married, every Friday I went to the local grocery store with a list of important items that we needed for Shabbat. The list would include necessities such as wine for Kiddush and challot for Hamotzi, as well as the additional ‘luxuries’ of cola, and cake. Being the person that I am, I would invariably remember the cola and the cake whilst forgetting the wine and the challah only to arrive home remember my error and once again return to the grocery store for the essentials that I had forgotten.
We are sent to this world with a list from the Almighty, yet it seems to me that so often we spend our entire lives acquiring “cola and cake” only to find out, albeit too late, that we have forgotten the true reason for which we were actually sent here. We so often forget the “wine and the challah”. The frightening difference between real life and my parable of the grocery store is that in real life, when our neshama returns home, and discovers or remembers that we have actually forgotten to bring back the essentials with us, by then it is too late, we cannot return to earth and have another chance.
It is for me the ultimate nightmare – to live a full life, only to discover that you have missed the point – the reason for being.
As human beings we are very capable in many areas, this makes our task all the more difficult. We can so often be led astray by our excellence in the fields of technology and science, by our skills in arts and crafts, by our incredible intellectual capacity – to see this world as the be all and end all of all worlds. When this happens confusion sets in, ends are confused with means, and means are confused with ends, instead of moving forward we spend our time going around in circles. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto says so beautifully:
“Our sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in Hashem and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it, but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our sages of blessed memory have said (Pirkei Avot 4:21) ‘This world is like a corridor to the World to Come’.
…Therefore man was placed in this world first – so that by using the means of Mitzvoth, he would be able to reach the place provided for him – the World to Come.” (Messilat Yesharim – Chapter One).
Man is a combination of both body and soul. The body emanates from the earth, and the soul emanates from the Heavens. The needs of the body are not the needs of the soul, and the needs of the soul are indeed not the needs of the body. From the very moment that the soul enters the body, the battle begins. Who will prevail? Will the body be subservient to the soul or will the soul be a slave to the body? Our aim is to live in this world as human beings, but to live in a manner that is dictated to us by the soul. If we succeed in our objective then the holiness attained by our soul will be on such a level that we will be worthy of our place in the World to Come. The tools that we have been given to accomplish this most difficult task are the Mitzvot.
The Mitzvot accompany us wherever we are whatever we may be doing. By performing a mitzvah we can turn what was seemingly a mere physical act into the holiest of experiences.
The human body can be divided into three sections of activity – actions, speech and thought. HaRav Chaim of Volozhin explains in his wonderful work Nefesh HaChaim, that running parallel to each of these three divisions is a spiritual equivalent. Parallel to our physical actions – is the spiritual ‘Nefesh’; parallel to the physical speech is the spiritual ‘Ruach’; and parallel to our intellectual thoughts is the spiritual ‘Neshama’.
The ongoing battle within us is constantly taking place in all of these three areas. Will our actions, speech and thought be those of a superior animal or those of a human-being?
Our objective is categorically not to destroy or ruin our physical being, but rather to control it, to direct our complete being in the most spiritual way possible. We have to eat, speak and think, the question is how we actually eat, speak and think.
As we near Yom Hakippurim, these are the thoughts that cross my mind. How can I improve on my actions? How can I enhance my speech? And most importantly how can I purify my thoughts.
We are told by our Rabbis that Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedaka remove the evil decree. If we take a closer look we can see quite clearly how the words of our prayers as designed by our sages so beautifully reflect the ideas of Nefesh HaChaim as we summarized them above.
Teshuva is a thought process, an internal decision to change direction – teshuva is the spiritual conquest of the mind. Tefillah is the greatest way in which man can use the gift of speech – dialogue with the Almighty. Thus tefillah is the spiritual conquest of speech. Tzedaka is the ultimate of actions – pure giving to ones fellow man – the spiritual conquest of our physical being.
Thus having been told that G-d decides our fate on Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur, we are also told that that very fate is actually in our hands. Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedaka, will remove any bad decree.
I believe that this climatic prayer in the Mussaf tefillot of Rosh Hashana and Yom Hakippurim is coming to remind us as to why we are here. Hashem brought us to this world for a purpose. This world is a means to the ultimate ends of the World to Come, and through the goals of Teshuva Teffilah and Tzedaka we can stay on the right path towards our ultimate objective.
These three themes are once again reflected in the three festivals of Tishrei:
Rosh Hashana is the day on which we declare G-d to be King of the world. It is in fact a day of coronation. This is the first and foremost element of our Teshuva. The Ten days of penitence cannot begin before the Almighty has been declared King of kings. And the essence of our Teshuva is accepting upon ourselves in the truest way possible that G-d is truly King of the universe. To the extent that halachically, even forgetting to declare G-d as – ‘Hamelech Hakadosh’ nullifies the Amidah prayer entirely during these days. Thus Rosh Hashana is the New Year it represents a new way – the way of Teshuva.
Yom Hakippurim is a day where we become angelic. We simply stand before G-d and pray. It is a day that emanates from mercy, and a day that we intend to use to the fullest, from the first moments of Kol Nidrei until the last moments of Neilah. We stand before the Almighty and pray and pray and pray. We have nowhere to go and nothing else to do, we are free from the daily disturbances of this world, and we have the unique opportunity to speak to the Almighty. Thus Yom Kippur reflects the way of Tefillah.
Sukkot is the festival of priorities. Wherever we may live, whatever we may own, we build our wooden Sukkot and live under the stars, under the direct protection of Hashem. We take our Arba Minim and we wave them to Hashem. On Sukkot we declare to Hashem, that not only have we declared Him as King on Rosh Hashana, not only have we spoken to Him as King on Yom Kippur – but now when theory needs to be translated into practice, we leave the “security” of our homes and move outside declaring that G-d is not just our King in theory, in the Bet Knesset, or in the Bet Midrash, G-d is our King in every thing that we do. We show that our intent from now and henceforth is to live our lives in the ways of Hashem.
During these intense twenty-one days we strengthen our spiritual resolve in all of the three physical areas of our being, and on the final day – Simchat Torah we celebrate together with the ultimate weapon that we have against the physical pressures of this world – The Torah.
These days are of crucial importance, once a year for three and a half weeks we spend serious time reviewing our direction, ensuring that we are doing what we are meant to be doing, and strengthening each and every area individually. Our objective is the World to Come, but this world is the key. Our safe arrival at our destination depends on the roads that we choose to take in this world. Hashem in His infinite wisdom sent the soul to this world to refine itself through struggle within the body, so as to be worthy of the World to Come. We use these days for introspection, for spiritual strengthening. Our aim is to ensure that we spend our lives on this earth doing what we are meant to be doing – serving G-d.
The sobering concluding thought that I have is that having defined the task, what we are unable to do is define the time that we have to achieve our objective. We simply do not and cannot know how much time we have on this earth to realize the aims and goals set out for us. Thus we have to apply ourselves with enormous energy to the task that lay in front of us. We do not know what will be tomorrow so our use of time and energy must be absolute. There is no time to waste, we have one chance to fulfill our objectives and we cannot afford the luxury of sitting back in our arm chairs and putting off our plans for change.
“There is no time like the present” – this is not good advice it is a truth. The only time that we know that we have is here and now. So we must use every moment in the most positive fashion. We must think about every action, every thought.
I hope and pray that next year will be a New Year for all of us. That in some way our lives will be newer. That our spiritual growth will blossom, and that we will succeed in overcoming the challenges that we face daily.
I hope and pray that this will be a year of Peace in the Land of Israel. Our People who have suffered so much for the last two thousand years are well deserved of a true and everlasting Peace.
I truly hope and pray with all my heart and all my soul that this will be the year of our final redemption. We have merited returning Home after two thousand years. We have merited returning to our holy City of Yerushalayim. Now we all await impatiently for the final stages of our redemption – the coming of Mashiach and the building of the Third Bet Hamikdash. It would be more than wonderful if we could celebrate this coming Yom Kippur with the real Avoda in the Bet Hamikdash – If we really want it to be so, and we act accordingly – it will surely happen – sooner rather than later.
Gmar Chatima Tova