Yom Kippur: Tasting Transcendence


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October 3, 2022

6 min read


How to holiday in the great beyond.

I spent five years ensconced in a yeshiva directly opposite the Western Wall in the late '90s. It was a high-traffic area, and it was not uncommon for tourists and visitors to pop in and take in the incredible view from our balcony. Periodically, this led to philosophical discourse between the yeshiva folk and our sundry visitors. Once in a while, juicy theological debates resulted.

One day I found myself well-seated to eavesdrop on one such exchange between a long-bearded rabbi and a young, secular Israeli soldier. After bantering around the meaning of life for a while, the rabbi asked the soldier what it was that the soldier wanted out of life. "Well," rejoined the soldier, "to be honest, I'm basically looking for ... sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll."

"Great!" shouted the rabbi, "I totally agree." Surprised (and somewhat more warmed to the conversation), the soldier pressed the rabbi to explain. "What exactly do you like about drugs?" asked the rabbi.

"It's the feeling of being beyond your boundaries -- of connecting to something bigger than yourself."

"Ahh, so you're looking for connection and transcendence?" asked the rabbi. "Hmmm, I guess so," said the soldier. "I never thought about it like that."

"And what do you like about rock 'n' roll?"

"It's the power conveyed through the music and the incredible unity of the crowd. I get it, rabbi; you'll say that I really want the power and unity and that the music is just a vehicle to get there, right?"

In truth, we always look for the un-distilled essence of our activity. When boiled down to adjectives, there are very few things that human beings want -- love, unity, power, harmony, meaning, peace, and the feeling of being beyond one's natural limitations (transcendence). We do what we do as a way to experience these emotions (or, at least, a close approximation thereof).

For instance, lust is the counterfeit approximation of love, and domination is a faux attempt at unity. The closer one comes to experiencing one's true goal, the more pleasurable one will find the experience. As we move up the ladder of pleasurable experience, the more ethereal they become. Love is a more refined, intense pleasure than a banana split, while meaning may be even more intense than love's profound and enduring pleasures.

From a Judaic perspective, the highest experiential goal (and, therefore, the greatest available pleasure) is a state of consciousness that is expanded enough to recognize God. In the words of Maimonides, it dwarfs all other pleasures to such a degree that they all seem like "vacuum and vapor."

All seven of these transcendental qualities (love, unity, power, harmony, meaning, peace, and transcendence) do not exist fully manifested in our world, which is the reason for their elusiveness and evanescence. What biological reason is there for us to experience emotion when we witness the sunrise? Is it just the pretty colors that move us, or is there some intangible quality beyond it that does?

Music is just some organized tones and rhythm. Why, when we hear a symphony, do we have the sense that something deeply profound has occurred, which helps us briefly grasp the grandeur and goodness of the universe as a whole? In short, these experiences are qualities of the next world made manifest in our own, so intense that they become all we want out of life.

The five services of Yom Kippur guide us up the ladder of expanded consciousness as we simultaneously divest ourselves of our physical appetites and dependencies.

Yom Kippur, contrary to popular belief, is not a solemn day, and it is, as the Talmud explains, one of the two happiest days of the year and the only instance of a fast day being joyous. It's also an attempt to live (for one day) fully as beings of the next world -- ones who neither eat nor drink nor engage in purely physical activities. As we believe that a human being is essentially a composite of a soul and a body (the fusion of an angel and an ape), the custom is to wear white, symbolically emphasizing our true angelic nature.

Judaism teaches that the human soul contains five levels, each of which is a consciousness with deeper and deeper potential for awareness. The first corresponds to our physical being, the second to our emotional state, the third to our intellect, the fourth to our spiritual state (where it begins to merge with the souls of the rest of humanity), and the fifth, the highest, is the point at which our collective essence merges with the Infinite.

There are five services on Yom Kippur, each corresponding to one of these levels. These guide us up the ladder of expanded consciousness as we simultaneously divest ourselves of our physical appetites and dependencies.

The dichotomy between this world and the next is critical to all of Jewish thought. In some sense, it can be said to be the goal of the Jewish religion -- to merge the two. In the Torah's very first sentence, we are told about God's creation of the heavens (which the Kabbalah explains as referring to the next world) and the Earth (this one). At first, they are unified in "one day," only to be separated on the next. Judaic practice seeks a final reconciliation of these forces. For this reason, there are two primary names of God used in scripture -- Elohim (God manifested in this world) and Adonai (the next world perception of God).

The culmination of the Yom Kippur service and the final push for expanded awareness after 25 hours of joyful work is a cathartic (and loud) seven-fold declaration that Adonai hu haElohim! -- that the God of this world and the next are one and the same. So too, the worlds themselves are joint facets of one creation.

As the Mishna reminds us: "This world is a corridor to the next. Prepare yourself in the corridor so that you may enter the banquet hall."

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