The holiest day of the year is upon us. The time of atonement and forgiveness, of introspection and self-analysis has again arrived. The unique quality of the day of Yom Kippur is that it is a day of cleansing. Just as our refraining from food and drink on that day helps cleanse us physically, so too does our participation in prayer, serious thought, recognition of personal faults and a new commitment to do better in the future cleanse our souls.
We are all well aware that the buildup of plaque in one's arteries is dangerous to health, and that surgical and medicinal intervention is often necessary. Unfortunately, during the year a great deal of plaque has built up in the mental, emotional and spiritual arteries of our being. Yom Kippur is an opportunity to remove or reduce that plaque buildup and to focus our attention on staying healthy both physically and spiritually.
There is no easy way or shortcut to accomplish this goal. The Talmud records for us opinion, in the name of the great Rabi Meir, that merely passing through the day of Yom Kippur itself can accomplish this end without our active participation. However, Jewish law and tradition does not accept Rabi Meir’s opinion as binding. Instead, human repentance is required in order for the cleansing process of Yom Kippur to be effective.
Yom Kippur is not to be viewed as a passive day of restraint and refraining but rather as a day of active participation in the process of cleansing our souls and purifying our emotions.
Because of this required conscious and active effort of repentance, Yom Kippur is transferred from being purely a day of rest into a day of wrenching emotional and spiritual activity. It is possible to sleep away the entire day and technically not violate any of the prohibitions. But it is unimaginable that if one does so that one has really experienced Yom Kippur.
The most difficult part of the day is not, in my opinion, hunger, thirst or physical fatigue - it is the necessity to honestly confront ourselves and face up to our weaknesses. We are required to focus on those areas in our life and in our relations to others that need attention and improvement.
We are all born with the gift of denial. Original man in the Garden of Eden, when confronted by God with the enormity of his sin, does not readily admit fault at all. He casts about to put the blame on others, and the others in turn lay their guilt upon still others. The ability to admit error is one of the most difficult psychological and emotional traits encountered in life.
Yet, without that ability and by remaining in constant denial of one's shortcomings, there is little hope for improvement and for achieving a more balanced and productive life. Yom Kippur can cleanse us and create us anew. But it cannot do so unless we are willing to face our own failings.
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem and the High Priest of Israel performed the public rituals of Yom Kippur, forgiveness, cleansing and personal improvement were somehow meant to be easier to obtain. However, even then under such optimal circumstances, the Jewish people did not truly exploit the opportunity of repentance. The result was that both Temples were destroyed.
In a strange way, Yom Kippur, over the almost two millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple, has become even more of a spiritual and emotional day. Since we can no longer rely on the Temple services or on the intercession of the High Priest on our behalf, we have become well aware that much depends upon us - and only upon us.
The removal of denial is the first step towards becoming a better person, building a stronger family, creating a more just and righteous community and strengthening our nascent state here in the Land of Israel. We should make a great effort not to allow Yom Kippur to slip away from us merely as a day of rest and restraint.
The gift of Yom Kippur is that for at least one day in the year we can be honest with ourselves and truly unite with our inner self and soul. Whether we do so or not is completely dependent upon each and every one of us - solely upon our attitude, thoughts, behavior and commitment on this holiest day of the year.
Gmar chatima tova
Rabbi Berel Wein