Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayelech
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Tishrei 4 5777
I must admit, I’m a bit confused. I know that the special laws and customs of Yom Kippur are designed to make us "angelic." Just as angels do not eat or drink, or engage in sexual relations, etc, so do we behave for 25 hours. We dress all in white, we sing G-d’s praises night and day; some people do not even go to sleep! We rise above our mortal selves to ascend closer to Hashem in Heaven.

And yet, as I read through the Yom Kippur machzor, I get a much different impression. I am constantly confessing my multitude of sins, "beating myself up" - literally! - over all the faults and failings I have. I am reminded constantly – most dramatically in the epic U’n’taneh Tokef prayer – how my lease on life is in constant danger of being revoked. In a sense, I am not only human, but lower than human, as is so bluntly expressed in this oft-repeated paragraph:

"Oh, G-d: Before I was created, I was undeserving. And now that I have been created, it’s as if I wasn’t created at all! I am dust, and destined to be dust. Before You, G-d, I am but a pitiful vessel, filled with shame and disgrace."

So which is it?? Are we angels, or are we demons?

The answer, of course, is YES! We are, in fact, both; a complex, composite creature who can reach the highest highs or, chas v’shalom, the lowest lows. We all have moments when we are truly Hashem’s most magnificent work, when we exhibit qualities that can make the angels blush. And then there are times when we conduct ourselves so poorly, when we tarnish our souls so badly that G-d must prefer to stay hidden behind His clouds.

Yet it is precisely this ability to soar or to sink that defines our humanity. Precisely because we have the power to demean our neshamot and engage in mean-spirited or immoral behavior do we merit reward when we rise above temptation and act in a decent, holy fashion.

As Yom Kippur winds down, and the Chazan recites the Avoda, he recites two dramatic but very different prayers. The first, Mar’eh Kohen, joyously, vividly describes the glowing image of the Kohen Gadol as he emerged, forgiveness in hand, from the Kadosh Kadashim. Yet immediately after, he recounts all the many practices and miracles of the Bet HaMikdash that we no longer have today, lost to us because of our negative behavior.

The choice is made clear to us: Sin, and sink; or grow in devotion to Hashem and rise to great heights, a glowing example of just how sublime a creation we really can be.

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