By Sam Glaser
I spent my first Yom Kippur away from my folks at my university’s Hillel House. I remember looking out the window at the deep blue Colorado sky longingly, feeling trapped and irritated. The rabbi was doing his best to make the services interesting, but there was far too much Hebrew and far too much melancholy. I burst out of that building at the first opportunity and never returned. Shortly after graduating I was offered a lucrative gig singing in a High Holiday octet at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills. I figured that if I had to be stuck in the synagogue, I might as well be getting paid. I spent the next eight years harmonizing with a wonderful group of fellow Jewish singers and soaking up the incredible melodies and techniques of our fearless leader, Cantor Baruch Cohon. Towards the end of the hunger-fest that is Yom Kippur I would torment my fellow bass with descriptions of all the food that I was excited to eat at my Aunt Sharon’s traditional break-fast meal. One year he retaliated by surreptitiously placing a napkin from Subway in my Neilah (closing service) sheet music.
Around the time my Jewish music career started to take off, I received my first invitation to serve as chazzan in congregations around the country. Each year I slaved over my machzor during the month of Elul to get in shape for the holidays, confirming that important maxim “according to the effort is the reward.” With such intense preparation my High Holidays became powerful spiritual peak experiences, culminating in a Yom Kippur service where I would truly feel transcendent. Rosh Hashanah is about declaring God’s kingship and praying for personal and communal blessing over the next year. It is also about seeing old friends, schmoozing and lots of delicious food. Yom Kippur is all business. You’ve seen everyone already, there are no meals to interrupt the flow, and you can relax into the dramatic script of the services. Just in case you aren’t already written in the Book of Life, you have twenty-five hours to get real with any shortcomings between you and the Boss and plead for clemency.
My most memorable Yom Kippur occurred not in the month of Tishrei but in the month of Elul. That was my personal Yom Kippur, otherwise known as my wedding day. On August 29th, 1993 I fasted until the late afternoon, eating my first bite only after the chuppah while in our yichud room. Just like the Day of Atonement, our tradition dictates that couples abstain from food and drink, the focus is on the gravity of the day and grooms wear a pure white kittle. To keep me focused I elected my brother Yom Tov (who at that point was still a clean-shaven Yeshiva neophyte) to be my shomer (the guard that assists the groom). He guided me through the long list of “Al Chets,” the Yom Kippur confessional that we recite during the Sh’moneh Esrei. Most importantly, he had me precede my Mincha prayers with a detailed accounting of everyone I could remember wronging, every ex-girlfriend scorned, every bridge burnt. Needless to say, I was sobbing in a quiet corner of the wedding hall for quite some time, alarming my guests who were awaiting my return back at the Tish. In hindsight I should have pursued this intense introspection well before there were so many cameras commemorating my tear-stained face. Of course, as soon as I composed myself, I was thrust in the midst of a stampede of black-suited men on the way to see my wife for the first time in a week. The sight of her seated like a bejeweled princess, the woman of my dreams who would be mine, re-ignited that flow of joyous tears.
Yom Kippur is considered the Sabbath of Sabbaths. This means that it is the holiest day of the year. It is the only holiday that trumps the imperative of feasting on the Sabbath. Both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are full twenty-five hour fasts where we begin at sundown and conclude the next evening when it’s dark. There are five primary restrictions on these days: eating and drinking, bathing or washing, applying creams and lotions, intimacy with our spouse and wearing leather footwear. For this reason you will see otherwise elegantly dressed congregants busting out Crocs and Converse All Stars. Leather belts or jackets are fine; this prohibition is about abstaining from luxury, not animal rights. I personally am thrilled to not have to stand for hours in my dress shoes. It’s important to note that those unable to fast for medical reasons have a mitzvah to eat…we must live by the commandments!
The net effect of these limitations is that we have the chance to be angels for the day. Angels have no bodily needs; they only exist to fulfill God’s will. So too with the penitent on Yom Kippur. Ideally, we truly invest in the power of the day and transcend the need for nutrition. With only these precious hours to depart from our bodily limitations and enter the realm of the spirit, it’s a shame to waste even a minute focusing on what is lacking. So don’t spend the afternoon kvetching that you’re starving! During the rest of the year we whisper the mantra of the angels, the Baruch Shem Kavod sentence right after the Sh’ma. On Yom Kippur, now that we’re angels and can say it aloud, really say it! Since I’m the chazzan, I make a special effort to conserve my energy so that I am not sweating any more than I need to. After all, I need all the saliva I can muster to lead the prayers through the last note of Neilah. Therefore, I avoid schmoozing during breaks and I rest at the synagogue rather than strolling outside. This avoidance of small talk and recreation is something that I recommend for everyone.
Yom Kippur is the anniversary of Moses’ delivery of the second set of the Luchot (Tablets). It is a day of Divine compassion and forgiveness for eternity. When Moshe smashed the first set after the egregious sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites weren’t quite sure if that first commandment, “I am God, your God” was still in effect. When we saw that the second set had this phrase intact, we knew that God would be our God forever. This is the true gift of the day.
This individual and collective reconnection with our Creator and the whitewashing of our mistakes requires only that we engage in heartfelt teshuva (return). After the reconciliation opportunities afforded by the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and the week before Yom Kippur, we are truly ready for unmitigated spiritual closeness without pretense. Chazal (our sages) recommend the following four-step teshuva process for each of our shortcomings. First we come clean: we search our hearts and acknowledge those times we fell short and express regret for having distanced ourselves from our true potential. Then we commit to stopping that damaging action and the callous behavior that got us to that point in the first place. Then we verbalize the mistake and ask God forgiveness, and finally, resolve not to repeat the action in the future. Just in case you can’t remember when you have transgressed, we repeat the litany of the forty-four Al Chet statements ten full times over the course of the holiday. Now you can see why you might need that full twenty-five hours in shul! Here’s a elucidation of the list to make it more meaningful. http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/guide/Exploring_the_Al-Chet_Prayer.html
The miraculous ability of Yom Kippur to inspire teshuva offers us the chance to have a clean slate with which to begin the new year. How often in life do we really get a fresh start? Never! Only within the realm of God’s infinite love, compassion and patience is this ever possible. Teshuva goes beyond having the list of transgressions torn up. Those transgressions can become mitzvahs! If that mistake you made gives you the impetus to improve, then it becomes the source of your growth and is acknowledged accordingly.
Down here on earth, teshuva is a bit more involved. After all, praying with all your heart will not whitewash the times you lost your temper and yelled at your loved ones. It will not make your business indiscretions go away. It will not make things better with friends whom you have disappointed. For all the mortals in your life, this four-stage process of teshuva must be enlisted for anyone that you’ve wronged, preferably before the holiday begins. The rabbis recommend that you sincerely apologize until forgiveness is given, and if our victim cannot find it in his or her heart to forgive after the third attempt, you are off the hook. Not forgiving someone is itself an aveirah (sin). Harboring grudges has been described as “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Just make your hishtadlut to apologize to your chevra, especially those closest to you and your Yom Kippur will be complete.
Just to make sense of the litany of tefilot, here’s an overview of the basic structure of the holiday. It begins with a mid-afternoon weekday minyan for Mincha that includes the confessional in the Sh’moneh Esrei, just in case you do not merit to survive until Yom Kippur. Leave yourself some time for the lengthy prayer, Tefila Zaka, which should be said before nightfall and is a great way to get in the mood of forgiveness. Then you scarf down a sumptuous meal in anticipation of the fast. I recommend that caffeine addicts reduce their intake gradually over the week after Rosh Hashanah so they don’t skid through the Yom Tov with a gnarly headache. On the other hand, there’s always caffeine suppositories! Make sure you take your last sip of water just before sundown and then you’re officially “in.” I once made the mistake of eating a huge dinner and then a second snack back at the synagogue since I usually get there early to get the bimah (pulpit) set up. I washed down that extra sandwich with a pint of water and nearly launched a Technicolor yawn a few minutes later at the first note of Kol Nidrei. Now that would have been a spectacle!
Kol Nidrei is recited with a beloved, haunting melody that is surprisingly universal. It is perhaps the most beautiful setting of a contractual document ever. We ask to be absolved of all sins in advance! Each service other than Ma’ariv includes the confessional both in the silent Amidah and the repetition. Each time we read the lines of Ashamnu and Al Chet we engage in symbolic self-flagellation by lightly beating our chest with our fist. The morning service is much like any Shabbat service but includes a Yizkor memorial section during the Torah service. During the lengthy Mussaf the cantor includes a recounting of the original Yom Kippur rite of the Cohanim in the Holy of Holies. Then there is a short break of five minutes to a few hours depending on how long the morning prayers take, and on to the Mincha service where the Book of Jonah is read. The reluctant prophet Jonah is here to remind you that you can’t run away from God or from your personal tafkid, your calling. As the sun is setting, a unique fifth service transpires called Neilah. It’s your last chance to dance…as an angel on Yom Kippur. Most stand throughout the entire service, much like the last inning a tied game of the World Series. Once the proverbial gates close and our decree is sealed, we exalt in the sounding of a triumphant Tekiah Gedolah (long shofar blast). Just when you thought you couldn’t pray another minute, a final weekday Ma’ariv is recited and then Havdalah. Now you can eat!
So what about Purim? The Torah tells us that every holiday has a balance of physical and spiritual, with heartfelt davening and serious banquets. This demonstrates that we are supposed to conduct our lives elevating the needs of both body and spirit. The exceptions are Yom Kippur, which is purely spiritual, and Purim which, with its costumes, partying and feasting, is all physical. The liturgy refers to Yom Kippur as Yom Hakippurim which can be translated as “a day like Purim.” Interestingly, the celebration of Purim begins with a fast, and the solemnity of Yom Kippur begins with a feast. On one we elevate ourselves with indulgence, the other with abstinence. As Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov points out, it’s harder to achieve holiness in a state of inebriation so Purim requires more effort and is therefore a greater holiday! On Purim we drink until we cannot distinguish between Baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai) and Arur Haman (cursed is Haman). The secret of Purim? They are both the same! No alcohol required; the gematria (numerology) of each phrase adds up to 502! In other words, good and evil come from the same source. God gives us an active inclination toward evil so that we have a sense of victory for choosing good. Like Purim, on Yom Kippur this distinction comes into sharp focus; we perceive that our transgressions can be the very engine that drives us towards goodness.
I’ll finish with a story. A benevolent king, beloved by his subjects, had a favored eldest son who all assumed would someday reign. The king and queen showered all their children with love and affection, giving them the best of life’s delicacies. As the oldest son grew, the king did his best to teach him leadership skills, diplomacy and kindness. He was concerned that perhaps the “easy life” in the palace had softened his children’s resolve and tenaciousness; indeed, they had never wanted for anything. Furthermore, he was unsure if they could handle the trials of leadership and the temptations of power. So when his oldest son grew to marriageable age, the king sent him on a journey to a distant kingdom. He gave his son enough to survive but wanted him to interact with the world anonymously, without the trappings of vast wealth. Unbeknownst to the son, the king sent a trusted knight to watch over him from a distance. As soon as they were settled the king instructed the knight to send a prostitute to seduce his son. Thankfully, the son resisted her advances and retained his regal purity. Upon hearing the report, the king rejoiced and sent word that the son could return from the voyage in order to be trained for the mantle of leadership.
When Yom Kippur comes around we are faced with the litany of tests that we have failed. Our sages teach that God created teshuva before God created the world. Rather than allowing our mistakes to initiate a downward spiral of depression, we have an invaluable mechanism to reboot our Divine connection. God provides tests not to sabotage us, but to give us the chance to use our freedom of choice to act Godly, and then bask in the glory of our victory. This is why Yom Kippur is a holiday, a joyous day, a Yom Tov. This is why on this day we are dancing with the angels. On Yom Kippur we truly perceive the essence of God’s oneness. Just as Purim allows us to see that our evil and good inclinations come from the same source, so too does Yom Kippur reveal the hidden opportunities within our most profound challenges. The goal of our annual tefila-teshuva marathon is that next time we face these challenges, we get it right. May we turn all our aveirot into mitzvot, may we turn our mourning into dancing, our sackcloth into garments of joy.