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Eliminating the Spiritual Waste

Yom Kippur (Leviticus ch. 16 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the Holy City of Jerusalem!

As we near the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating with Yom Kippur, we review our behavior of the past year and repent for our erroneous actions. Each time we make a mistake and act, say or think something against God's will, a residue of impurity remains on the organs that were involved in the sin. Yom Kippur has the power not only to atone for the sins we committed in the past so that God waives any punishment owed to us, it also has the power to remove the spiritual contamination from the objects which participated in the misdeed, therefore cleansing us from any impurity.

This two-step process is hinted at in the portion which we read on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:30), which states, '"On this day [Yom Kippur], He [God] will atone for you to purify you from all your sins..." The verse refers specifically to atonement and purification in order to teach us that two distinct processes are involved on the Yom Kippur day. God, in his mercy, not only excuses our sins by lifting any punishments we deserved, but also purifies us by removing any residue of impurity caused by the sin.

Although Yom Kippur has the tremendous power to purify and cleanse us, there is yet one more step that we must take to complete the process, as the Netivot Shalom explains. Even after Kapara (atonement) and Tahara (purification/cleansing), the negative root which caused us to sin could still lie dormant inside. Failure to destroy this root puts us at risk of repeating transgressions, as the root cause of our inappropriate thought, speech or behavior still exists. (The Pri Ha'aretz comments that our holding onto the negative roots is as severe an offense as clinging to the transgression itself because it is the root which ultimately propels us to repeat the sin.)

This final step of the process is alluded to in Psalms 37:10, where we are told, in reference to Yom Kippur, "Just a little more, and there won't be a rasha (wicked person)." We could suggest that the word rasha, spelled reish, shin, ayin, refers to the evil root, as the letter shin at the center of the word stands for the word shoresh, meaning 'root', which also lies at the center of our being, leaving the remaining outer letters, reish and ayin, to form the word Ra, 'evil'. The service of Yom Kippur brings us to a level which enables us, after being excused of our sins and being cleansed, to work on delving into the inner cause, the root of our negative behavior, and eliminating it completely.

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The level that we reach through Yom Kippur is comparable both to the level that Adam and Eve attained in Gan Eden prior to the sin, as well as to the level that we will reach in the Messianic era (see Nachmanides - Deut. 30:6). At that time, choosing the correct path, that is the will of God, will become a natural and automatic instinct. Nachmanides explains that with the destruction of the evil inclination, people will no longer desire to stray from the proper path, as it says in Ecclesiastes 12:1, "I have no [evil] desire during those [days - of the Messiah]," but we will instinctively yearn to fulfill God's wishes at all times (Talmud - Shabbat 151b).

We see that beyond overcoming our temptations to engage in negative behavior, we need to cultivate a nature within ourselves where the desire to act inappropriately does not exist in the first place! Once we destroy the root causes of the external negative behaviors, we automatically destroy the risk of erring, as the wish to transgress no longer exists.

The Yalkut Shimoni (Proverbs 9) tells us that, in the Messianic era, all the holidays besides Purim and, as some maintain, Yom Kippur too, will be nullified. We could suggest that the reason Yom Kippur will continue to remain a holiday is that it shares the same essence of the Messianic era. As Nachmanides explains, the Messianic era will be a time when all evil will be uprooted and Man no longer desires earthly temptations, but will automatically desire to follow God's will. This is exactly the essence of the Yom Kippur day as it prepares us, through atonement and purification, to take the extra step and uproot any sources of evil within us, so that ultimately, we naturally desire to pursue only the will of God.

Further proof as to why Yom Kippur shares this essence lies in the Talmud (Yoma 20a), which says that the numerical value of the word HaSatan (the Satan, or evil inclination) is 364, falling one number short of the amount of days in the solar year. This teaches that on one day only the Satan does not prosecute against us: Yom Kippur. In fact, the Midrash (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, cited by the Rosh in Yoma 8:24) says that on Yom Kippur the Satan actually defends the Jewish people and speaks only of their praises! This highlights how the essence of Yom Kippur is about uprooting and destroying all negative sources which cause us to deviate from God's will and, therefore, allowing us to follow the path of God wholeheartedly.

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The Chida (in Nachal Kedumim) explains how to achieve the ultimate goal of Yom Kippur. He quotes a verse from Psalms 89:16: "Fortunate is the nation that knows the Tru'ah [of the Shofar], God, in the light of Your countenance they walk." He divides the verse into two and explains that the first half of the verse, which talks of the tru'ah blast of the shofar, refers to Rosh Hashana, while the second half, which mentions the light of God, refers to Yom Kippur. Says the Chida, the intense spiritual light of God is revealed to us on the holy day of Yom Kippur. If we allow this Divine energy to enter and fill ourselves completely, there will no longer be room for negative energy - because we are over-filled with Godliness! By allowing God in, and releasing the barriers that prevent us cleaving to Him, we automatically destroy negativity, the 'Shoresh Ra', the antithesis of Godliness.

A person once asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, "Where is God?" He replied simply, "Wherever you let Him in." The task of Yom Kippur is to let go of ourselves, our inner spiritual barriers, and let God in. Once we open ourselves fully to receiving the light of God, and commit totally to a life where everything we do, from waking in the morning, to eating, sleeping, walking, and so on, is connected to God in our mind, heart and soul, we have achieved the ultimate goal. As we cultivate this foundation, and blossom into dedicated servants of God, we gradually reduce the space for any negative roots to grow, to the point where there is absolutely no room at all.

May we all be blessed this Yom Kippur to receive the Divine light, and let go of any negative barriers, in order to let God in and uproot any traces of evil, so that we merit to witness the Messianic era, returning to the level of Adam and Eve before the sin, desiring to fulfill God's will totally, with mind, heart and soul.

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