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Q&A : Yom Kippur – August 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine

Yom Kippur is the day of dread for the Jews…

The Mishna actually says that Yom Kippur is one of the two most joyful days of the year.

I’m sure many would find that hard to believe…

Yes, but the Gemorrah explains that there are two reasons for this. One is that it is a day of forgiveness and atonement from Hashem. And two, it was the day that the second set of tablets was given to the Jewish people.

We all know that it’s about forgiveness, but the second reason isn’t so widely known. Tell me more…

What most people don’t realise is that Yom Kippur has a history. We are all very familiar with the historical context of all the other Yom Tovs – Pesach is when we left Egypt, Shavuot when we received the Torah and so on,  but have you ever asked yourself if Yom Kippur has a history?

Does it?

Yom Kippur was the day that the people were forgiven for the sin of the golden calf.

What happened?

Briefly, what took place was that the Ten Commandments were given on the 6th Sivan, Shavuot, and Moshe went up the mountain the next day to get more of the commandments and principles of the Torah directly from Hashem. When he came down from the mountain 40 days later, he found the people worshipping the golden calf and broke the tablets. The day that he came down was the 17th Tammuz, and this is one of the reasons why it is a fast day and marks the beginning of the three weeks of mourning. Moshe goes back up the mountain for 40 days, to beg G-d for forgiveness, and G-d refuses. Moshe comes back down, defeated, but G-d calls him back up the mountain to try again – on Rosh Chodesh Elul.  The days that followed were filled with compassion and opportunity for repentance.  This background also explains why the month of Elul is such a special month.  40 days later, on the 10th of Tishrei, Moshe comes back down the mountain with a sign of Hashem’s forgiveness –the second set of tablets. This was the very first Yom Kippur in history. 

That explains why it is a happy day…

Yes, because we were given the Torah – for the second time. Because to have the Torah is a privilege, and when we sinned, we lost the merit of that privilege. But Hashem said to us that even though we had sinned, we repented and so we were forgiven – and symbolic of this forgiveness was Hashem giving us the Torah back.

Why does nothing on Yom Kippur commemorate the receiving of the Torah then?

There are things, like the custom to have a candle burning for 24 hours on Yom Kippur. This is not a yartzheit candle, to remember the dead. This candle represents the light of Torah, as it says: ‘The comandments are the flame and the Torah is light’.

So the two reasons meet up, forgiveness and Torah?

It is all interconnected. Because that year, the very first Yom Kippur when the Jews were in the desert, they were given a second chance, a new lease on life after the terrible sin of the golden calf. The people worshipped the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, which the Talmud compares to a bride committing adultery at the Chuppah! But in spite of that, Hashem forgave them. It’s a day of forgiveness, and what greater joy could there be than being given a second chance?

But doesn’t that almost imply that forgiveness is a given?

No. Yom Kippur is an opportunity for forgiveness. It is not a guarantee. We each have to embark upon a process of true repentance in order to tap into it. In this way, it’s a gift from Hashem. Because it gives us the power to change the past. Hashem will wipe clean the past and give us a completely fresh, new slate – provided that we do our work.

What is that work that we have to do?

The work of repentance is defined very clearly. The Rambam (based on the Talmud) defines repentance as a fourfold process. To regret the particular sin – this pertains to the past. To resolve not to do it again – in the future. And to desist from doing it now – in the present.  In the case of sins committed against other people, you have to ask forgiveness of the person whom you wronged.  The Talmud makes it very clear that if you don’t get forgiveness from the victim of your actions, that Yom Kippur will not atone for the sin.  On the other hand, they are not allowed to withhold such forgiveness and if asked sincerely, must grant it. And then finally, to confess before G-d.

Interesting that confession comes last …

Confession gives tangible expression to the internal process of repentance. That is why a large part of the Yom Kippur service is confession, vidui. It is the culmination of the repentance process. But it’s only worthy if there has been proper repentance. One can’t just confess to G-d without intending to change anything and then expect forgiveness for that.

So why then is it only once a year – we make mistakes daily which we regret immediately.

Repentance works all year round, it is just that Yom Kippur has an extra power.

But every year we repeat the same confessions?

Even after one has repented, the Talmud says, we still remember our past sins.

Why, if we repented and achieved forgiveness last year?

It is part of keeping humble and also reminds us not to fall into the trap of complacency.

Why isn’t Yom Kippur associated mainly with joy?

Yom kippur is a day where on the one hand there is a tremendous opportunity for joy, of Torah, of forgiveness, of a second chance. But it’s that very opportunity that creates responsibility. So Hashem is giving us a gift of a day to undo the judgements of Rosh Hashanah and be given a second chance to change things for the good, therefore for a person not to grab that opportunity holds them morally responsible. Together with the joy and that opportunity, is the dimension of the awesome trepidation of the day, where we realise that there is a lot at stake. That we are liable if we do not take the opportunity that is being given.

But it is still a day of physical deprivation…

The five physical afflictions – not eating and drinking, not wearing proper (leather) shoes, not washing or anointing, and no marital relations – are not about mourning, or imposing misery and sadness on the day. Rather, it is a day on which we become like angels, and the afflictions, explains the Maharal, are there so that we can elevate from the physical world, for just one day to be purely spiritual.  Throughout the year Judaism teaches about living an integrated life of physical and spiritual.  But one day a year on Yom Kippur we live like angels – spiritually elevated.

I think that’s an important new lesson for us all – that Yom Kippur is about hope and joy…

Definitely! G-d gives us opportunities all the time. Out of his love and compassion for us, He wants us to succeed. And we have to grab those opportunities with both hands. But justice demands that we are held accountable as well. But foremost, Hashem wants us to win.  He wants us to do better. He is rooting for us, He wants to reward us so that we can make the most of who we are and what we can be. Like a parent who always wants their child to succeed. A parent never gives up on a child, and Hashem will always be there  reaching out to us with love, with the opportunity to make a new start for a better life.

Posted on 16 August 2010 in Text, Your Q&A