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Teshuvah on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur (Leviticus ch. 16 )


Let us examine two aspects of the process of teshuvah (repentance) and the return to God, which constitutes the major theme of Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, "What does the following verse mean? And for me, may my prayer be to You, God, at a favorable time (Tehillim 69:14)." He replied, "The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah are always open." Rabbi Chanina responded, "How do we know this?" He replied, "The verse says, With wondrous acts in Your righteousness You answer us, God of our salvation, the trust of all corners of the earth and the distant seas (ibid. 65:6). Just as a mikveh is sometimes open and sometimes closed for purification, so too, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed. However, just as the sea is always open for purification, so too, the hand of God is always open to accept penitents." (Devarim Rabbah 2:12)

To understand the gist of this, let us discuss the general idea of taharah (purification). When a vessel, or a person, requires taharah, a mikveh, a specially prepared body of water, is used. It is a basic requirement of this procedure that the entire person or vessel must be totally submerged in the water. If even the most minute area of the person remains outside the water, the tevilah (immersion) is completely invalid and must be repeated. However, if water itself becomes impure, it need only touch the waters of the mikveh in the slightest way, and it immediately becomes tahor. A detailed discussion of the laws of tumah and taharah (impurity and purity) and how they apply is beyond the scope of this essay. We are primarily concerned here with the symbolic aspects of different sorts of taharah.

We may compare the purifying effects of water with tefillah (prayer). The purpose of tefillah is to enable the supplicant to cleave to God. Every part of one's being is supposed to be involved: all of one's physical senses and certainly the whole of one's spiritual makeup must be concentrated on the act of tefillah. If one fails to muster one's entire physical and spiritual abilities to prayer, then the situation is similar to the person who uses the mikveh but leaves part of his body outside the water - his tefillah is ineffective.

However, if it is a time of special Divine grace, the "favorable time" described above, then the situation is somewhat different. This produces a particular relationship between God and klal Yisrael, one of a more "face-to-face" variety. At this time of favor, a similar sort of favorable nature is awakened in the individual with which he may approach God. Since this permeates his entire being, it encompasses all his senses, enabling him to connect directly with God.

This helps us understand the above midrash. A mikveh is sometimes useful for purification and sometimes not. It is only effective if a person is able to immerse himself completely in the water. So, too, tefillah is usually only effective if a person can invest his entire being in it. But when water becomes defiled, the smallest contact with the mikveh is sufficient to restore its purity. Teshuvah literally means return - return to the essential self. When a person performs sincere teshuvah he reestablishes contact with the root of his soul - the pristine holiness that is within him. The slightest connection with this innate holiness removes the defilement of sin from him. Just as the sea is always open and available, so too, the path to this sort of purification is always open to him. During the Ten Days of Repentance and especially on Yom Kippur itself, it is much easier to achieve this sort of relationship with God. As our Sages tell us:

Seek out God when He is to be found (Yeshayahu 55:6) - these are the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. (Rosh HaShanah 18a)

Perhaps the two sorts of taharah that we have mentioned correspond to the two sorts of offerings brought on Yom Kippur, the mussafim and the special once-a-year sacrifices. The mussafim, as their name suggests, are additional to the usual, daily, continual offerings. As such, they represent the special holiness of every Yom Tov, which finds its expression in the Yom Tov Kiddush:

You chose us from all people and raised us above all tongues. (Siddur, Kiddush of Yom Tov Eve)

This corresponds to the extra closeness and special favor God feels for His chosen people. As we have said, this awakens a favorable nature in klal Yisrael and gives them the ability to connect completely with God, like a person who achieves purity by immersing totally in the waters of the mikveh. This happens on every Yom Tov, and Yom Kippur is no exception.

However, with the special offerings of Yom Kippur, we find a new idea, which occurs nowhere else:

For on this day He will atone for you, to purify you; from all sins before God you will purified.(Vayikra 16:30)

Klal Yisrael come before God on Yom Kippur and are purified by a slight touch, for just coming into contact with the day brings atonement. This is like the case of the impure water, which merely requires contact with the mikveh to achieve purity. This, of course, corresponds to the teshuvah aspect of Yom Kippur, a feature shared by no other Yom Tov.

* * *


As we have seen, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance), which last from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, are an opportunity to repent of our misdeeds and reestablish our relationship with God. If this is so, then we must be given the possibility to change every aspect of our lives and thus our personality. Every person consists of three major parts: the body, the soul, and the intellect. Let us see how the Yamim Nora'im provide us with the chance to revise the direction of each of these primary components.

Rosh Hashana is the "head of the year," as its name suggests. It is not, however, just a name for the festival. Rosh Hashana is literally the "head" of the whole year. Just as the intellect of a person reposes in his head and directs his actions, so too do the occurrences on Rosh Hashana affect the success of the entire year. On Rosh Hashana, the focus of the day is an intellectual acceptance of God's rulership of the entire world. Rosh Hashana, then, is the Jew's chance to revise the direction of his intellect and harness it to the service of God.

Once we have established the correct frame of mind on Rosh Hashana, the remaining days until Yom Kippur provide a framework within which to work on the soul, that is, the emotional part of the personality. During this time, we perform the ritual of kapparos, in which we symbolically transfer our misdeeds onto a chicken or money. This is, as it were, a "soul for a soul." We are expected to examine our deeds during this time and arouse within our souls a great longing for repentance and our lost connection to the Divine.

Finally, after all this preparation, we are ready to refine our bodies, our most physical component, through the act of eating. We may not ingest food on Yom Kippur itself, so we eat our meal shortly before the fast commences. This has the status of a mitzvah meal, in which we demonstrate our ability to use the food for holy purposes, in this case, strengthening our bodies for the fast ahead.

It is only now, having worked on every aspect of his being during the preceding days, that the Jew can enter Yom Kippur, a day with special powers. As we saw above, God promises:

For on this day He will atone for you, to purify you; from all sins before God you will be purified. (Ibid.)

This verse has three phrases, implying the three sorts of purification we just mentioned. The cleansing process of this holiest of days can only start once one has already sublimated one's physical, intellectual, and emotional powers as much as possible. After we have cleansed ourselves as much as we can, we enter Yom Kippur, on which God guarantees that He will complete the task. This opportunity comes but once a year. If we utilize it to the best of our abilities, we are assured of a fine and sin-free start to the new year.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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