Yom Kippur – A Day of Both Affliction and Joy
By Jonathan Berkowitz
Return to Me and I will return to you, says the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 3:7)
We connect Passover, Shavuot, and Rosh Hashanah with acts of redemption—the Exodus and splitting of the sea, and the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Yom Kippur also commemorates a redemptive biblical event, namely God being revealed to the entire Jewish people.
As we shall see, this redemption was neither physical nor political, but rather, spiritual: God’s forgiveness of the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Nathan Laufer explains that the people learned repentance was possible even when they strayed and violated the commandments. Atonement sets the stage for an “at-one-ment” with God, leading to divine acceptance of human frailty. The rabbis broadened this spiritual redemption to include other biblical violations that required God’s forgiveness, and so Yom Kippur became the day of atonement for all misdeeds. It was already the holiest day of the year for all Jews as long ago as the latter part of the Second Temple period.
Yom Kippur certainly does not seem celebratory. “On the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a sacred holiday to you, and you shall afflict your souls; and you shall bring a sacrificial offering…, and you shall do no work on that day…. It shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you…” (Lev. 23:26-32) The Torah is rather obsessive in its focus on afflicting oneself and on avoiding any work. It repeats these admonitions three times each within seven verses. How can observance of a holiday require such physical discomforts? But the day is joyous too, as we shall see.
The Yom Kippur liturgy encompasses many unique prayers and customs with mysterious symbolism. What do the Torah readings and Haftarot teach us on this most solemn day of the year? Why do Kol Nidrei and Ne’ilah, neither of which have a parallel in any other Jewish prayer services during the year, bookend the day? We’ll leave that to the rabbis to explain more fully, but we’ll share a logical explanation here.
Recall where we are in the biblical narrative. The Jewish people are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses has gone up the mountain for “God knows how long” so that God could teach him Torah. Moses was the only physical connection between God and the people. They worried! He went up without food and water and in the summer heat. For the masses, God and Moses were synonymous. The people convince Aaron to help them make a golden calf, a physical object to replace Moses, but also an egregious violation of at least the first two of the Ten Commandments. When Moses returns and sees the orgiastic partying, eating, drinking, and inappropriate sexual behaviour, he shatters the tablets in a fit of rage, metaphorically tearing up the marriage contract between God and the Israelites. What could the Jewish people do to restore the relationship?
Maimonides taught that a key to successful repentance is to avoid whatever led to the sin in the first place. Applying this to the story of the Golden Calf, God commanded that Jews avoid eating, drinking, and sex on Yom Kippur, the day that commemorates that great sin, as a precursor to our atonement and to God’s forgiveness. In a sense, we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur as a form of commitment never to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
Back in the wilderness, God’s forgiveness was provisional. He decides that Moses will lead the people to the promised land and an angel will help them conquer it. Feeling genuinely contrite, the Israelites mourn, accompanied by the traditional rituals of bereavement which are part of Yom Kippur: no jewelry, no bathing, no leather shoes, no anointing, and the wearing simple white linen garments. Rabbi Laufer writes, “We show thereby that on this day at least, we do not pay attention to ourselves, to our own vanity, but redirect our attention and devotion to God.”
But God has put Himself in a quandary. He wants to keep His distance but recognizes the people’s contrition. The tipping point is the moment the people both figuratively and physical return to God as the Divine Presence is revealed. God rejoins the Jewish people on their journey to the Promised Land. That is cause for great joy.
The final mishna in Tractate Taanit records that, historically, the two most joyous days in the Jewish calendar were the 15th day of Av (the equivalent of Sadie Hawkins Day when young women would go out to the fields in their finery and woo the young men) and Yom Kippur. Now we understand what the rabbis of the Mishna intended in characterizing Yom Kippur as an especially joyous day. What could be more joyous than reliving a tale that starts with the basest of sin and separation from God but ends with spiritual redemption and reunification with God.
To learn more, read Rabbi Laufer’s book Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals.