How do I know Judaism is still alive and well? More people go to synagogue for Kol NIdrei than any other time of the year- and there’s no food served for at least twenty four hours!
So what is it about this unique holiday that can draw so many people? And why do we start with something so seemingly technical as a prayer that is about the annulment of vows?
Let’s look at the latter: There is a Talmudic statement that tells us before birth a soul is made to take an oath, ‘Be a righteous person, and not a wicked one.’ Much has been written about this oath, but what’s relevant here is the idea that it is forbidden from the Torah to break an oath in general. In the course of life when some transgressions are inevitable, one could say that each transgression is not only transgressing a particular commandment, but also one of breaking the original oath that the soul takes before birth.
The reading of the book of Jonah is also prominent in people’s minds. Of course, Teshuva is the primary focus of the book; in fact, one rabbi pointed out that each party in the story did Teshuva! However when asked what was the most important verse in the book, one Hassidic master said, ‘What’s with you, sleepy head?’ This seemingly trivial detail is actually the point of all the Ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, among the many reasons given for the shofar blasts, according to Maimonides is the primary one, ‘Waken you slumberers from your torpor.’
Let’s consider the fast: though Jews love to eat, and indeed are commanded to for so many situations including the day before Yom Kippur, fasting has its own unique fascination. The sages say we are like angels who don’t need to eat. Hopefully, during the preceding ten days of Teshuva, we have removed as many blockages of mistakes from the past year, to be able to tune in to our higher, G-dly nature that can take us even beyond where angels go.
Speaking of angels, why do the Yom Kippur prayers say repeatedly that even the angels are trembling? One reason, say the sages, is that the whole world, including angels, depend on the Jewish people’s re-dedication to G-d and commitment to the Torah and its principles for another year.
A related reason as to why there are five separate services, with five names, is because each person has five parts to their soul, from the most earthly to the most ethereal. Yom Kippur is the one day in the year that we have the most access to all these parts where our prayers can lift us beyond the realms where angels dwell. In fact, the highest prayer at the end of Yom Kippur, is called Neila, meaning locked in. The familiar reason is that the gates of heaven which have been open all day, are now about to be locked. A more positive reason is that we are locked in the closest proximity possible with the divine, and that memory and inspiration can stay with us throughout the year.
Our angelic semblance is shown by a directive to recite a prayer that is said quietly all through the year, except for Yom Kippur, where we shout it out, each time it appears. That is the line- ‘Blessed is the name of the honor of His kingdom, forever and ever’-Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. We also say this line when we say a blessing by mistake, which would be like taking G-d’s name in vain. Why that line? Because if we were living on an angelic plane, we would not have made that mistake in the first place!
In times of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, a major focus of Yom Kippur was when the high priest, the Kohen Gadol, would spend time going in and out of the Holy of Holies, performing intricate and complex aspects of the sacred services, called the Avodah. As a famous saying goes, ‘The Holiest person enters the holiest space on the holiest day of the year.’ The Hassidic masters point out that on spiritual levels, we can emulate the awareness of the high priest, whenever we so choose, because indeed the high priest represented the collective consciousness of all Israel. In fact, he himself was considered, ‘not a person’, i.e. rather trans-human. Perhaps he even resembled Moshe who came down on Yom Kippur from Mt. Sinai the third time of the forty day cycles, with the second set of the Ten Commandments, and his face glowing!
There is a beautiful teaching from the Berditchiver about the above ‘magical moment.’ As we read in the Yom Kippur prayers, the Kohen Gadol is isolated for seven days prior to entering the holy of holies in a special chamber called, Lishkat Parhedrin, the chamber of changes. Why that name? because says the Talmud, during the second Temple days, the position of high priest was actually purchased, and so that position ‘changed’ many times during the four hundred years the Temple stood! But why would the sages give that chamber such an ignominious name?
When the High Priest sprinkles the blood of the offering, the process goes- One sprinkle above and seven below but he does it in a special way: One above, two below; one above, three below, etc. So the Kedushat Levi in his frequent role as ‘the grand defender’ of Israel, explains that the Kohen Gadol was actually trying to restore transgressions back to their source in holiness, (else where does the energy of anything in this world come from, if not from an originally pure place) in the following way: Everything on earth stems from a connection to the seven sefirot from Chesed to Malchut- hence the seven days of creation. The attribute of Binah, the eighth attribute from the bottom up, is the source of Teshuva. Hence the High Priest, through these sprinkling, is transmuting all the seven attributes back to their source in Oneness, by bringing them ‘home.’ Hence the name, ‘Chamber of Changes.’
This idea of restoration of a sinner back to the Source, is illustrated by the sages in Talmud Chagigah by the epic story of the most famous of Jewish sinners- Elisha ben Avuyah, otherwise known as Acher, literally the ‘Other one.’ Without going into the details of how he became an apostate, the ‘punch line’ of his defection came when he stated, ‘I heard a heavenly voice declaring ‘Return you wayward children, except for Acher.’ Rabbi Soloveichik explains that G-d was really saying, ‘Return by way of detaching from the ‘Acher’ the other side of you that is negative.’ It reminds me of how Michelangelo chipped away at the parts of the statue of David that did not belong, until he got to the ‘real David.’
As much as we try and try on our own to become better, we seldom reach a pinnacle. There is always a place where we need help from Above. The Ten days of Teshuva are defined by both the effort and the grace. The sages associate the verse from Isaiah, ‘Seek G-d where he can be FOUND’…When is G-d most easily found? In the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The word ‘found’ is a key to the process. We strive to the extent that we can, but there is a gap, a chasm if you will between our exertion and the wonder of the Divine touch. As the mystics put it, these ten days reflect, ‘the approach of the Source of light to the spark’. I think of it kind of like the magnet reaching down to the filings that are the image of G-d within us.
With the above concepts, it may be easier for us to understand a very strange comment. The full name is actually Yom Hakipurim, the day of atonements in the plural, for all beings. However the Hassidic masters have a verbal pun that translates the name into ‘the day LIKE PURIM.’ In other words, Purim is really the higher of the holidays. To explain that fully would take another essay, but along the lines I have addressed, a meaning emerges- bringing us to a true feeling of Awe, because with our limited minds, divine judging is beyond our capacity to fathom. As we say in the famous prayer made even more famous by Leonard Cohen, Z’L, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ‘who shall live and who shall die,’ is not a predetermined outcome; we have ways of changing those patterns, and that’s what Teshuva is all about.
But Purim goes even further: The Talmud tells us that on Purim (meaning lottery) one should become so intoxicated that they can’t tell the difference between ‘cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai.’ In essence, not only can’t we figure out our or anyone else’s karma, but it is all a big mystery. There is a key word that is found both in the scroll of Esther, and in the book of Jonah: the common root is HAFACH- which means transform. I leave it to you to find the word in both places. Meanwhile, please contemplate that from a deep Torah perspective, nothing is fixed; we are all in the ‘chamber of changes,’ and even when life hits bottom, we cannot help but go up. The Torah tells us explicitly: No matter where you are in the world or in your life! I will restore your captivity, each one of you. And this is not merely geographic. That promise is G-d’s counterpart vow to the vow we took before birth. May the haunting melodies of Kol Nidrei and other prayers take us to a place beyond where we ever dreamed of, and may the coming year be one of awesome peace, love, and complete redemption with the coming of Mashiach!