And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [teannu et nafshoteichem]; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you afflict your soul [ve-innitem et nafshoteichem]; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29–31)
Yom Kippur isn’t an easy day. Not because of we are fasting. I agree, fasting is one of the duties of today, as commanded in the Torah, but fasting in itself only needs a bit of physical strength. If, God forbid, we are ill, or get sick, we are even commanded to break our fast.
What isn’t easy is the affliction of the soul, the practice of going deeply into ourselves and revealing our innermost fears, doubts and insecurities in front of the Eternal. There is no more bargaining time left. No more time to negotiate with God, to present good deeds in mitigation of our sins in the hope that we will be dealt with, with compassion to receive a ‘lighter’ sentence. This should have been done in the previous 10 days in particular, and in the weeks that preceded Rosh Hashana. Everything we have done, or not done, is already recorded and known in the heavenly court.
Today, we are awaiting the final verdict, and we must stop playing games. We know and understand that we haven’t met all the goals we set for ourselves. We know we have failed to meet the standards that were expected of us. We know we could have done better: we have sinned; we have transgressed. Today, we speak out loudly and acknowledge we have committed all the sins we confessed to in the last 10 days.
There is no way out. The die has been cast, and the verdict is almost in. Today our fate will be decided. Today!
Today we need to be honest with ourselves, and with God – and this is a painful exercise. The affliction of the soul hurts. There is no ‘waiver’ we can apply for to get away from this duty. Without exception, every one of us is standing before the Eternal, waiting for our fate to be decided upon.
And that’s why we are standing today humble in front of the Eternal, our Father and our King, and beg for mercy.
“Source of our life: we have sinned; forgive us. Grant us pardon, Adonai, for we have transgressed. You are the Good, from whom forgiveness flows, and with boundless love You respond to all who call upon you.” (GoR 334)
But as this little piece from our liturgy, that we have just read, indicates, Yom Kippur isn’t a sad day, it is a day full of hope and joy. God, Adonai is a merciful God, full of loving kindness and grace. God grants forgiveness to all who honestly ask for it.
Va-Jomer Adonai: Salachti Ki’devareicha
And Adonai said: I have pardoned in response to your plea. (GoR 335)
And this hope, or maybe certainty, does not come out of the blue. It is something that is deeply embedded in our relationship with the Eternal, in our unique covenant with Adonai, throughout the history of our people. The hope of gaining God’s forgiveness from transgression and sin goes way back to story of the Golden Calf as detailed in Exodus.
Moshe pleads with God to spare the people after they had built the idol of the Golden Calf to replace God after Moshe had been away from the Israelite people for more than a month. They must have felt abandoned by their leader, maybe even by God. According to our traditional interpretation, their sin was that they lost trust and faith in God, not only that they built a Golden Calf.
After much pleading by Moshe, God pardons his people, and enters into a new covenant with them (Exodus 34:9-10).
The situation repeats it self several times in our Bible, like the one big rebellion against God and Moshe after the 12 spies returned from their investigation of the ‘Promised Land’. 10 of the 12 spies reported that what lay ahead of them wasn’t pretty. „The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.“ (Numbers 13:32) Upon hearing this news the community rebelled against Moshe, and God, saying, „It would be better for us to go back to Egypt.“ (Numbers 14:3)
Our sages teach us, that the fear of the 10 spies in this story came from their own inner perceptions. The slave mentality that still shaped the thinking of the Israelites prevented them from seeing what was real: their own strength, and the divine protection by Adonai. The sin of the people was again their lack of faith and trust in God – despite all the signs and miracles that God had performed on their journey thus far.
God is ready to „strike them with pestilence and disown them“ (Numbers 14:12) before Moshe pleads to God.
“Adonai erech apaim ve rav chessed nosse awon va-pesha ve-nakeh …”
„Adonai, slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment.“ (Numbers 14:18)
Moshe reminds God that they had been down this road before. „Remember the Golden Calf incident, God?“ is probably what was going through Moshe’s mind.
„God, pardon us as You did at Mount Sinai.“ And God pardons the community using the words we also just read in the Prayer for Forgiveness:
„Vayomeir Adonai, salachti ki’dvarecha”
“And Adonai said: I have pardoned in response to your plea” (Numbers 14:20)
I guess, we are all familiar with similar situations in which we have felt powerless, alone, anxious, fearful, in grave danger or even threatened. Sometimes these feelings are completely overwhelming, whether they occur in our private or professional lives. There are situations in life where we feel like grasshoppers compared to giants, to use the analogy of the spies who went to scout the Promised Land as described in the Torah. Examples where we can be overwhelmed by the circumstances we find ourselves in can be found in all walks of life: at home, at school, at university, at work, and in dealing with family or friends.
But we need to see things in perspective. Sometimes the targets we have set for ourselves evolve and grow into tasks that seem impossible to accomplish, impossible to do or solve – and then we feel lost, anxious and afraid. Very often we find obstacles in our life that have been caused by others. But more often than not, the obstacles in our life have been placed there by no one but ourselves.
Sometimes there is stroke of fate shattering our self-confidence. The anxiety, and fear we may feel at such times is often accompanied by feelings of great disappointment, anger, sadness and despair. Even anger against God is one of the feelings we may have, when we lose our trust, our faith.
And again, the keywords here – as in the biblical stories – are faith and trust in oneself, and in God. We are blind, not able to see our own strength, and the divine protection. Like in any other partnership, trust and faith are the defining components of our covenant with God. Losing the faith or trust in your partner can destroy the fundamental structure of your relationship. Whether this relationship is with God or with a partner – the same rules apply. To repair this relationship takes honesty, and sincerity. We need to be open to change; we need to be willing to ask for forgiveness, and – equally important- we need to be willing to forgive in return.
Today, when we ask for forgiveness from God, having lost trust and faith in ourselves and in Him should be one of the main items on the list, we bring before the Eternal.
Pardoning its people is God’s response to Moshes plea for forgiveness, and thus it is the basis we use to ask for atonement today, on Yom Kippur. The affliction of our souls might be painful, but the knowledge that God is with his people and is granting forgiveness is what turns Yom Kippur into a day of hope, and not a day of pain; in a day of partnership, a day where we renew our covenant with Adonai.
May you all be sealed in the book of life, rewarded for your honesty towards yourself and towards God. May you gain strength from this day, this day of hope, to master the tasks that await you in the coming year. May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and never lose faith and trust in God and his people – your brothers and sisters.
Gmar chatima Tova.