How would you describe Yom Kippur? A solemn day? A day of prayer and supplication? A day of abstinence? The Mishna has a different description. It says Yom Kippur is a day of joy – in fact, one of the two happiest days of the year. This seems surprising to say the least. Yom Kippur is a day spent praying and fasting, and generally putting aside the things that bring us physical enjoyment.
The Gemara explains the happiness and joy of the day is because it’s a day of forgiveness for our misdeeds, the opportunity to begin our lives afresh, free from the mistakes and wrongdoings of the past. It’s the miraculous opportunity, in a sense, to go back in time and change history… our history.
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuva, which literally means “return”. Through teshuva, we return to that pristine state in which there was no distance or disconnect in our relationship with our Creator and with our fellow human beings.
Of course, it doesn’t just happen. Real repentance takes heart-rending effort and application. The Rambam, in his Laws of Repentance (Laws of Teshuva, 2:2), defines the process of repentance and sets out its various components: regretting the mistakes of the past, desisting from that wrongdoing in the present, resolving not to return to this course of action in the future, and finally, confession, an explicit verbal admission of all of our misdeeds.
The process of teshuva leads to forgiveness at any time in the year, but it has special power on Yom Kippur. As the Rambam writes: “Yom Kippur is a time of teshuva for every individual and for the multitudes, and it is the climax of forgiveness… therefore everyone is obligated to do teshuva and to confess on Yom Kippur.” (Laws of Teshuva, 2:7). On Yom Kippur, the force of Divine forgiveness is at its apex, and our heartfelt pleas for forgiveness are both more potent and more readily accepted.
The Rambam points out that the process of teshuva described above is sufficient when it comes to misdeeds that have damaged our relationship with G-d, but words and actions that cause harm to other people require an extra step. To rectify the harm done to others, we need to personally ask their forgiveness, as well as make any monetary restitution if we have caused them financial loss. Indeed, the Rambam says, based on the Talmud, that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between one person and another unless that personal forgiveness has been granted. It is for this reason that, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, it is customary to ask for forgiveness from whoever one may have wronged in the past year so as to be able to access the gift of Divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The Rambam writes that it’s important for the person who has been wronged to act with compassion and graciously grant forgiveness. In this way, the relationships that have been damaged by our wrongdoing can be fully restored.
The bottom line is that the redemptive, purifying powers of Yom Kippur can only be accessed through real action and sincere intention – through a deep and meaningful teshuva process. This also explains why an important part of our Yom Kippur prayers is devoted to viduy – “confession”. In each of the Yom Kippur Amidahs there is a section devoted to confession. The fact that the confessions formula is embedded in the most intimate and personal of our prayers – the Amidah – indicates that our confession is meant to be a direct encounter with G-d, a moment of truth as we stand before our Creator, our defences down, without any pretensions of innocence.
The relationship between confession and the other components of the teshuva process is important to understand. The teshuva process is largely an internal process of transformation, buried in the heart and mind and soul of a person. Regret for the past and resolve for the future are a state of mind. It is the process of confession that gives verbal expression to the deep internal psychological and emotional process of personal change and repentance. The words of the viduy help us articulate and concretise the deep feelings of regret for the past and resolve for the future. By vocalising our misdeeds, we reinforce – and give shape and form to – the processes taking place deep beneath the surface.
Ultimately, we cannot just walk into the Yom Kippur experience without preparation. When we recite the various confessions before G-d on Yom Kippur, we need to have done the necessary spiritual and physical work beforehand. That is why Yom Kippur does not appear in the calendar in isolation. It is part of the Ten Days of Repentance, which begin with Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur. The hard work of teshuva begins, in fact, from the beginning of the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
One of the confessions we say on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge that sometimes we say a confession without meaning and intention, and this is something we have to be aware of and guard against. To merely mouth the words and assume it’s an automatic pass to forgiveness and atonement is a critical mistake. Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because of its powers of forgiveness, atonement and spiritual cleansing – but it is a gift which is accessed through the real work of personal transformation.
Confession also catalyses another dynamic, and that is self-transcendence. Rav Chaim Friedlander explains the source of most personality faults and wrongdoing in the world is selfishness and self-absorption. Egotism. Our sages call on us to transcend our ego, to concern ourselves with the well-being of others. The Gemara says we will find forgiveness and compassion from G-d when we are able to be compassionate and forgiving towards others. On a simple level, the Gemara is saying G-d deals with us measure for measure. If we show understanding, forgiveness and compassion to others, then He will do the same for us in return. But Rav Friedlander says that it goes deeper. The capacity to show understanding, forgiveness and compassion to other people is derived from a capacity to transcend our ego. This self-transcendence imbues us with a holiness and purity and greatness, and it is this that brings about the Divine forgiveness.
So Yom Kippur is a day of achieving self-transcendence. We do so through our confessions, where we take a step back from our ego and look at ourselves objectively, acknowledging where we have made mistakes and where we can improve and how we can become better people. Doing so verbally and sincerely before G-d is a very powerful act of self-transcendence.
The other dimension of self-transcendence on Yom Kippur is to transcend the physical world by not partaking in food and drink, not wearing leather shoes, not washing or anointing with oils, or engaging in marital relations. That, too, is an act of transcendence – of transcending the pursuit of personal physical gratification that can sometimes weigh us down, and can distract us from the task of self-mastery that the day of Yom Kippur is all about.
Above all, Yom Kippur is a day of Divine forgiveness, a day of redemption and liberation from our mistakes and misdeeds. It is, in short, the happiest day of the year.