Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the Shabbat of Shabbatot, will soon shed its holy light upon us. Do you feel excitement? Are you looking forward to the experience? Many people unfortunately incorrectly understand the Yom Kippur experience. They think that it is a day of suffering and the more we suffer, the longer we stand and the harder we beat our chests, the more we will be forgiven. The Mishna’s note that there were never greater days for the Jewish people than Yom Kippur and Tu B’av has been forgotten for some and in place some confuse the day with another Tisha B’av of sorts. Perhaps it’s the no leather shoes. But in truth, Yom Kippur is supposed to be a happy day, a day of incredible spiritual elevation, one on which we can reach the highest of delightful spiritual peaks. What is the secret of Yom Kippur? Let us try and delve into one facet of this holiest of days give us the tools to plug into the positive spiritual energy that the day is overflowing with.
As Rav Dessler and the Chasidic masters constantly point out, each chag/Shabbat/time period has its own unique spiritual energy to tap into and grow from. What is the spiritual energy of Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur is a day where there is a down pouring of what is called Rachamim – Divine compassion. We see this in the dovening of the day (and the slichot prayers) where we constantly refer to Hashem as the Father of Compassion and we call out Hashem’s 13 attributes of Rachamim (Hashem, Hashem, Kel Rachum VeChanun etc.) over and over again throughout the Yom Kippur dovening.
Rav Hirsch points out that Rachamim comes from the root word Rechem – a womb. The womb connotes an image of deep closeness and interconnectivity. The child maintains its own individuality and yet it is completely interconnected and dependent on the mother. It is hard to think of a more accurate image of two separate distinct entities yet so intertwined with closeness and interconnection. So too, compassion flows from one distinct entity to another as a result of the inherent closeness that they share (see Malbim on Tehillim 103:13). When you see another person as only separate and distant, when you put up barriers and walls of distinction then it is very easy to judge them with narrow vision, act coldly and impartially to their needs and pain, and even act in a cruel manner. They are too far off, too distant to arouse any feelings inside you. Conversely, when we learn to resonate with another the result is empathy and compassion.
When you have rachamim, you feel others pain, but you also see the bigger picture. Your vision broadens and instead of judging harshly and quickly, you can be patient with other’s failings, giving them space to fall and get back up. Hashem Is described as ‘erech apaim’ which Rashi explains as giving us time to mend , holding off from strict immediate judgment for our averot giving us the opportunity to return. As a loving father, with that intrinsic closeness we share, He sees beyond the outer layers of misdeed of His children and gives us the amazing chance for repair. Understanding Rachamim as a result of closeness, it is no coincidence then that the Gematria (numerical value) of the word Echad (unity/oneness) is 13, the number of attributes of Rachamim that we say on Yom Kippur and also the numerical value of the word for love – Ahava.
On a deeper level though, the Rechem/womb is representative of the purity with which the child comes into this world. It represents a returning to source. This is one of the secrets behind the mikvah which, like the amniotic fluid of the womb, allows a person to return to a state of purity. Rachamim is thus the result of seeing beyond the outer and into the inner pure core of the person. One who has rachamim therefore looks to others and sees their pure source. They focus on the potential the person has as opposed to what they might be exhibiting currently. When Hashem showers us with Rachamim, He looks at our deeper, untainted holy soul, our inner essence, the higher self that wants only goodness and connection with Him. He looks through the outer shells of physicality and bodily desires that lead us astray and He focuses on the essentially pure light within which wants only good.
How do we plug into this downpour of Rachamim? We need to identify with that inner potential ourselves. Instead of locking ourselves into the negativity that we do we must remind ourselves that we are potently holy, and that our averot (sins) are not a true expression of who we are. “That is not me – that is when I stray from the real me”. The laws of Yom Kippur contain 5 principle devices to help us detach from our identification and connection with the lower self: We fast, we don’t wear shoes (leather), we don’t wash, we don’t anoint (creams and oils, etc.) and there is no marital intimacy. These 5 devices all serve to detach us from a body focus and shift to an inner soul focus, far away from that which caused us to sin. That, through the Teshuva process (of recognizing and admitting to our mistakes, and accepting to stay away from them in the future) and the showering down of Divine rachamim, leads to Kapara – the cleaning of our slate from any negativity that we did.
There is nothing more liberating. The intense pleasure and happiness of Yom Kippur comes from the liberating pleasure of identifying with our inner holy self, touching the Divine within, so to speak. On Yom Kippur , like the Cohen Gadol , we all can access the kodesh hakodeshim within as we take off our golden garments of physicality and don our pure white angelic ones (Rebbe Nachman) guided by the light of Rachamim.
May we all merit Hashem’s great compassion and be sealed in the book of life and Blessing for the year to come.
G’mar Chatima Tova