Shoes and the Secret of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur provides the unique opportunity to transcend our physical limitations and embrace our truest sense of self.
Yom Kippur is one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar; it is also one of the most unique. While we may think of Yom Kippur as a solemn and difficult day, the Jewish sages refer to Yom Kippur as a joyous and spiritually uplifting day. In fact, Yom Kippur is linked to the happiest day of the year - Purim. The name itself, Yom Kippurim, literally means “a day like Purim.” However, Purim is a time of feasting and joy, and Yom Kippur is a day when we remove ourselves completely from the physical world - we do not eat or drink, engage in marital relations, wash ourselves, or wear leather shoes. These behaviors are often associated with mourning and sadness, the exact opposite of the joy we experience on Purim. If Yom Kippur is indeed meant to be a joyous holiday as well, how do we reconcile this with the restrictions of the day?
Soul Questions: What Are We?
Most people believe that they "have" a soul, some spiritual essence within themselves. However, Jewish sources teach that you don't have a soul, you are a soul. The soul is not an aspect of yourself, or some spiritual component of your being; it is your very self. You are a soul, a consciousness, a spiritual being. When you say "I", you are referring to your soul, your inner sense of self. You have a body, emotions, and an intellect, all aspects and expressions of your soul. But at root, you are a soul, a neshama, an infinitely expansive consciousness.
A soul is angelic, perfect, pure, and transcendent. However, the moment one enters this physical world, the infinite expansiveness of the soul is confined within the physical body, its container in this world. The body is meant to be the tool of the soul, allowing the soul to fully manifest its will in this world. This is our mission in life. As we journey through life, we tap into greater and greater aspects of our soul, our true self, and we must then manifest them into the world through our physical bodies. In doing so, we uplift our physical vessels and enable them to tap into greater and greater aspects of our true self. Life consists of the endless expansion and expression of self into this physical world.
The struggle in life is to see past the material and realize that we are souls in a physical casing longing for deeper meaning and fulfillment.
But it is easy for people to forget that they are a soul, and instead identify with their physical body whose urges and desires are ever-present and enticing. Born in to a physical world, we tend to believe that we are only that which we can see.
The struggle in life is to see past the material and its craving for immediate gratification, and realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing longing for deeper meaning and fulfillment. Yom Kippur is the time to realize that we are at essence spiritual beings trying to uplift our physical experience.
The Spiritual Concept of Shoes
Understanding the meaning behind removing our shoes on Yom Kippur sheds light on the relationship between the soul and the body. The Nefesh Ha'Chaim (1:5, note 6) explains the profound spiritual concept of shoes. The body uses the shoe as a way of traveling through the world. The lowest part of your body resides in your shoe, which allows you to walk. This relationship between your body and shoe is the same exact relationship between you and your body. You are an angelic soul, a neshama. Your body is your container, your "shoe", which allows you to interact with the world, move around, and actualize your potential.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for shoe, na'al, also means to "lock", because the shoes lock your feet in and allow you to walk around. So too, your body locks your angelic self in, allowing you to control your body and use it to navigate this physical world.
Taking your "foot" out of your "shoe" represents taking your angelic soul out of your body.
On Yom Kippur, we remove our shoes, which represents transcending our physical bodies. Taking your "foot" out of your "shoe" represents taking your angelic soul out of your body. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we completely free ourselves of our physical limitations and embrace our angelic selves. The central theme of Yom Kippur is “teshuva,” repentance. Teshuva literally means “return”; on Yom Kippur we return to our ultimate root, our spiritual and perfect soul. The Jewish Sages teach that Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we have the ability to become angelic. On this day, our lower selves and our physical urges are powerless, they cannot bring us down. On Yom Kippur, we are transcending our physical bodies, embracing our angelic selves. As such, we remove our shoes, our "physical vessels".
Removing our shoes on Yom Kippur is one of the five prohibitions of the day, all of which conform to the same theme: transcendence. Food is that which connects our body and soul, keeping us alive and rooted in the physical world. This is why fasting makes us feel faint, and prolonged hunger causes lack of consciousness and eventually death. On Yom Kippur, we intentionally loosen the connection between body and soul, transcending our physical casing and experiencing one day of living in a purely angelic state.
The Opportunity of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur provides the unique opportunity to transcend, to experience the infinite and embracing our truest sense of self.
The transcendent experience of Yom Kippur lays the foundation for the rest of the year. While the physical can be destructive if misused, the ideal is not to completely transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. Our goal as humans is not to escape the physical, but to use it as a means of connecting to the transcendent.
Sukkot, the holiday that immediately follows Yom Kippur, embodies this lesson in embracing the physical. Our root must be transcendent, grounded firmly in the spiritual, and then atop that foundation we can descend into the physical and use it in a transcendent way.
May we be inspired to fully experience our angelic selves this Yom Kippur, and then infuse the totality of our spiritual acquisition into our physical life, elevating our actions and intentions as we move this physical world towards its ultimate spiritual root.
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