One of the strangest things that hit me this year leading up to Yom Kippur, was that this was only the 3rd Yom Kippur where I would be defined as “shomer shabbat”. Only 2 years ago I started? It seems like forever that I’ve been “frum.” It’s amazing how in such a short time I’ve grown so much, and how I view certain things so differently.
Just a few years ago,Yom Kippur was the day I couldn’t eat and had to spend long boring hours in shul. Sure there was the aspect of Teshuva and forgiveness but is basically came down to being tired and hungry. This year in the preparation leading up to Yom Kippur I hardly even thought about the food. I’ve come to realise that fasting on Yom Kippur is merely a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. It’s a day about cleanisng ourselves, about removing all the physical and wordly distractions and reaching the elevated level of angels, of that ultimate Devekut between the Neshama and HaKadosh Baruch Hu – the closest we can get in this world anyway.
And it’s such a great feeling to look back and know that except for the half-hour break during the day’s Tefillah I hardly thought about food, didn’t really get tired or wish to sit down. Instead I was concentrating fully (almost) on the heartbreaking viduy – the neverending list of mistakes I made during the year, and the thing that makes it so painful – the potential for closeness, for the greatest relationship I could wish for, if I would just play my part.
In one sense, having been a “ba’al teshuvah” for a substantail period of time makes the whole Teshuvah process a little bit harder to get into. I look back and remember how 2 years ago I was confessing about things like driving on shabbat, eating blatanlty non-Kosher food and other “biggies”. It’s tempting to look at how far I’ve come and say “You know you’re not so bad anymore. Everything you do is basically ok.” But of course that’s the advice of the Yetser Hara. The fact that I know so much more now means I have an even higher level of responsibility and there are so many things I don’t do now that I didn’t even know about back then (Bittul Torah is a striking example)
I heard from one of my Rabbis an explanation of the pasuk “Kaveh el Hashem, chazak veya’ametz libecha vekaveh el Hashem” along these lines, based on the Sfat Emet. He said it’s easy for a person to get to Rosh Hashanah and think to himself, “You know, I’m basically OK. I keep most mitzvot, I learn every day, I come to Tefillah on time, I treat my friends pretty well. Sure, Rambam wrote 10 perakim of Hilchot Teshuvah, Ramchal wrote Mesillat Yesharim, R’ Yonah wrote Sha’arei Teshuvah, but they weren’t meant for me. The guy who sits behind me in the Bet Midrash, now HE needs help but I’m doing ok.” Forget it. You’ve still got to work to do. Even if you have done Teshuva and raised yourself up now’s not the time to give yourself a pat on the back. Chazak veya’ametz libecha… veKaveh el Hashem. Even more!!
Yom Kippur is definitely a day of emotional contrasts. On the one hand, it’s a unique opportunity to start afresh, to wipe out all the black marks, remove all the stains and begin the year ahead, atoned for, cleansed and pure. On the other hand, the recognition of just how low we’ve fallen is nothing less than tragic.
I think this contrast plays itself out most poignantly in the tefillot of Mussaf. The piyyut of the avodah describing the Kohen Gadol and the entire ceremony performed in the Beit HaMikdash comes to a climax with a song describing the simcha and majesty at the end of the day when the Kohen Gadol, having emerged from the Kodesh Kodashim unscathed, exited the Beit HaMikdash and returned home amidst a scene of great celebration. As we sang and clapped, I thought of the story of the Gemara of how Alexander the Great got off his horse and bowed down to Shimon HaTsaddik – how majestic the appearance of the Kohen Gadol must have been. And more than that, standing in Yeshivat HaKotel we were just a few metres away from where it all happened. (The fact that I had learned the mishnayot of Yoma this year and understood the whole sequence of the avodah also helped matters) At this point we were right there in the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, after the sa’ir hamishtaleach had been sent away, the korbanot has been brought, the blood sprinkled, incense offered up, Kohen Gadol emerged from the Kodesh Kodashim unscathed, and all of Israel’s sins atoned for. It doesn’t get much better than that.
And then with a flip of one page in the machzor, I was brought back down to the ground. It felt like those great men who composed our Tefillot were saying to me – remember what we had, go back in time and really live it, but before you head gets stuck too high in the clouds, come back down to reality. Put your feet back down on the ground. Look outside the window and see what’s on Har HaBayit today. Look at how far we have fallen. As I read along with the piyyutim comparing the avodah we had just read about to our present woeful state it didn’t take very long for my eyes to start welling up with tears. And at the end of that section came the Ten Martyrs. If that’s not enough to bring somebody to tears I’m not sure what is.
Something else that made this past Yom Kippur an incredible experience was the fact that I was davening in a Yeshiva and not a shul. For the first time it wasn’t a case of looking over my shoulder every few minutes wondering how people would look at me if I started crying, praying silently for too long, or screaming for mercy too loud. I was in an environment where everybody was really in the right mood – they weren’t there because they had to be, because it was the long, boring, hungry day in shul, but because they wanted to be there – and were cherishing the rare opportunity for that renewal of the relationship with their Creator.
How strange it is to think that just a few years ago I stood all day waiting for Yom Kippur to end, now only a few minutes after Havdalah, I was already looking forward to next year.
I guess in a sense the real work begins only after Yom Kippur. On that day the Kedusha is inate, there’s special assistance from Above and it’s pretty easy to do everything right. But once it’s over and we get back to all our creature comforts, it’s a little bit harder not to fall back into all the cracks we’ve slipped through during the year. Hopefully I’ll get to next Yom Kippur and just afew of those Viduys will be a little less relevant.
Originally Posted Oct 09, 2006