As Yom Kippur approaches, our sense of urgency rises. The day is heavy with expectation, mystery and finality. The ending service of the day, Neilah, represents the locking of the gates and our need to enter them, being received, forgiven and embraced by the Holy One before they close. It is a day with deep messages most closely aligned with an NDE, a Near-Death Experience. It is focused on the deprivation of physical needs so that one can be totally infused with spiritual concerns. We are told to wear white because it represents simplicity and purity. In fact, the garment worn by clergy, and even some lay people, is like the shroud in which we are all buried. We fast and deprive our bodies of sustenance and we don’t wear leather, a material that is a symbol of luxury. Unless we take medication, we don’t drink water, another important element of survival. We don’t bathe, pay attention to our appearance, or shave. All of these normal parts of living are eliminated for 24 hours, putting us in a weakened and frail state, tasting a moment of expiration, symbolic of leaving this world. We bring only our desire for forgiveness and need to realign with our pure soul, the state of feeling grace and being held by the Holy One.
Yom Kippur is a cathartic experience. Some people wait each year for the opportunity to feel such an elevated state, that liminal place that removes us from the reality of all that we face in this world, and taste what feels almost angelic in its understanding, knowing it is temporary but purposeful, to come out renewed and transformed. Yom Kippur is like the Divine Mikveh, the source of water that rebirths the spirit each time we enter it. It is an experience that washes over us, cleanses and purifies us, and we leave the service buoyed for the next year. In fact, the traditional Jew rushes home to start building the Sukkah, the fragile booth we enter and in which we sit, eat and perhaps even sleep. Reinvigorated, we are ready to celebrate and express the joy of living and sharing with family and friends. It is a miraculous form of therapy with incredible results. Each moment we pour into our prayers, self-examination and soulful melodies is an inner spa of restoration.
Yom Kippur represents something of which not everyone is aware. According to the rabbis, it is the day on which Moses returns to the Israelites with the second set of tablets.
Yom Kippur represents something of which not everyone is aware. According to the rabbis, it is the day on which Moses returns to the Israelites with the second set of tablets. After they sinned by building a golden calf, an idol, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai getting the first set, he returns and throws them to the ground, shattering them, an expression of his rage at their total disregard of the Covenant so soon after being liberated from Egypt. Now we might understand their outrageous behavior for feeling abandoned, alone or just too spiritually immature when their leader is out of view, but it is still not acceptable. At that moment Moses feels the need to reconnect with God on their behalf and try to get a replacement for these precious tablets.
After much convincing he receives not only the gift of a new set, which he helps to create, but also the The Thirteen Middot, God’s expressions of kindness, patience and compassion, as well as the statement, “I forgive the people.” Moses returns not only with the new set, but also with this gift of forgiveness that has become the mainstay of our service to this day. Each year we express these thirteen qualities in a haunting melody, together in community, reminding ourselves that God is always ready to forgive and shower us with compassion. The number thirteen represents the word “ahavah,” love. If we make an effort of sincere repentance, the gates of compassion are open and we receive God’s love.
Each Yom Kippur we replay this piece of history and Torah teaching. We align with the past, we heal the present and we forge a new future. It truly is an opportunity to shift the mundane into the extraordinary. May this Yom Kippur bring you through the gates to new heights of awareness, resolve and renewal.
Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery: A Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.”