Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Yom Kippur
To dedicate this lesson

Yom Kippur


Rabbi Berel Wein

The "one day in the year" has arrived and is upon us. The day to "afflict our souls" and pause and contemplate our humanity and mortality is the day of Yom Kippur. Afflicting our souls applies not just to the fasting and other deprivations of normal comforts that the Torah prescribes for us on this holiest of days. The true affliction of our souls occurs in our own self contemplation, in our thoughts, regrets and hopes. People very rarely have an opportunity to talk to themselves. In fact people that do so on a regular basis are thought to be weird if not even disturbed. A wag once remarked that he enjoyed talking to himself since it was probably the most intelligent conversation that he would have all day. Jewish tradition is replete with great men of saintly character, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditechev and the Chafetz Chayim, two of many for example, who would discuss the day’s events and their behavior that day with themselves before retiring for the night. If such behavior is beyond the usual norm for most of us, at least on Yom Kippur we can afford the luxury of such a conversation. More than that, the holiness of the day demands of us that we conduct such a conversation with our souls and selves. Because we are not in the habit of creating such conversations on a regular basis we oftentimes find such a conversation to be painful, awkward, troubling and difficult. No wonder the Torah calls it a method of "afflicting one’s soul."

The main topics of the conversation are to determine what we really want out of life and what we are willing to demand of ourselves to achieve our goals. The current worldwide economic crisis, bringing with it so many lost jobs, shrunken assets and portfolios, has perhaps concentrated our minds wonderfully to attempt to answer these existential questions. Many of the certainties in our lives that were rock hard just a few short months ago now wobble in the winds that suddenly buffet us. A good friend of mine made a certain commitment to a very worthwhile Torah educational institution last year. He delayed payment of his pledge because he wished to pay it to the institution in shares of stock that he was holding. He wanted to wait till the stock traded at a certain high price before transferring the stock to the institution. As the stock approached that high trading price the institution pressed him to pay the pledge even if the stock was still a point or two below his target goal. His business acumen betrayed him and he was determined to hold on till the last possible dollar could be wrung out from the transaction. The stock since then has declined by seventy percent. He moaned to me that he not only lost the money but he is now unable to redeem his pledge and attain the reward of the mitzvah potentially involved. I think that the problem was that he never had that conversation with himself three months ago. Had he done so things might have turned out differently for him.

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzatto in his immortal work, Mesilat Yesharim, begins the book with the question "What is the obligation and purpose of a person in his life in this world?" This deceptively appearing simple question begs no easy answer. In Jewish tradition, the general answer has always been service to God and to man, to Jewish tradition and continuity, to creating a personal and national sense of holiness and morality. The details to this answer lie in observance of Torah commandments and in a sense of spiritual soulfulness in our everyday mundane activities. But the answer only comes alive and becomes meaningful to us if we are able to internalize its message and make it a part of our being and personality. A great mentor of mine would always comment regarding certain situations and problematic decisions that one should always ask one’s self "What does God think about this matter?" Having the conversation with one’s self before acting or implementing one’s thoughts many times avoids having to have the conversation with others when it will be more embarrassing and painful to do so. Yom Kippur allows us to ask ourselves "What does God think of me, my behavior, my goals and my relations with others?" Yom Kippur strips us of all pretenses and slick answers. It forces us to look at ourselves honestly and deeply, to the very recesses of our soul and personality. That is why Yom Kippur is in reality "the one and only day of the year."
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