(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The name of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which takes place on Shabbat this year, symbolizes its essence: The day when G-d forgives His people and atones for their less-desirable actions.
A stranger entering a synagogue on Yom Kippur would stand in wonder listening to the different prayers, especially when he would notice the intensity and emotion of the worshipers.
Many people stand together, among them rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old, religious and less-religious, women and men, those from a high socioeconomic stratum and those from the fringes of society – all stand together before G-d without discrimination, and do something pretty extraordinary: request forgiveness.
Everyone has regrets. Regret is an inextricable part of being human. It might be said that whoever has no regrets must lack self-awareness.
To have regrets, a person need not have committed an outrageous crime, stealing or, heaven forbid, committing murder. It is enough not to have treated our partner nicely, or to have offended a friend. Small deeds, even minuscule ones, leave a small scar that necessitates forgiveness, purity and atonement.
Our sages, though, put up a big warning sign here that says: “Sins that are between a man and his fellow are not atoned for on Yom Kippur.” (Tractate Yoma, chapter 8) One cannot offend another person and ask for forgiveness from G-d. Forgiveness must be asked from the person we hurt and only he can pardon us.
Actually, on the morning of Yom Kippur, we read a section of the Prophet Isaiah’s words (chapter 58) where he presents a debate as though it takes place between G-d and human beings. In this chapter, we see how Yom Kippur leads us to repair our ways and be just and kind to our fellow man.
The Prophet Isaiah says that people claim the following before G-d, “Why have we fasted, and You did not see; we have afflicted our soul and You do not know?” This question is asked after the fast, when the yearned-for pardon is not seen on the horizon and out of the despair of people who turn to G-d asking, “Why hasn’t the fast helped?!” G-d’s response is clear and unequivocal: “Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord? And do you human beings think that I desire you to suffer?! And do I get any benefit whatsoever from the fact that you bend your heads and afflict yourselves?!” If so, if the fast is not an end in itself but the means to reach something else, what is this yearned-for goal? G-d responds to this question with the following surprising answer: “Is this not the fast I will choose?... Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.”
This, explains G-d, is how I want your fast to look. This is the goal that I expect the fast to help you reach. The purpose of the fast is not to suffer (or diet). The purpose is that we should think about the miserable, poor people, those who do not have food or clothing, about the fact that there is a sense of solidarity among all people and we must not ignore human suffering. This is the purpose of the fast.
The Prophet Isaiah promises that “Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer, you shall cry and He shall say, ‘Here I am.’” Then, when we end Yom Kippur having made a real and sincere decision to do more for others, to work to make the world a slightly better place, to treat our families better – then G-d will answer our call.
Alongside this, there is another way in which Yom Kippur influences us in a positive manner.
One of the sections repeated over and over again on Yom Kippur is a short part of the Torah termed The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Again and again, we repeat the following verses: “Lord, Lord, benevolent G-d, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7) The repetition serves various purposes. One of them relates to the essence and idea of this sacred day. When we repeat this declaration over and over again, we become persuaded that the correct path between us and our fellow man (and not only between us and our Creator) is the path of compassion, forgiveness, kindness and truth. There is virtue in this statement. We turn to G-d in the merit of those same qualities of mercy with which He identifies Himself, and thus we awaken those same traits in all of human society, and especially in ourselves. As our sages have said, Whoever deals indulgently and forgivingly with his fellow men earns similar treatment from the Almighty. If we make a habit of displaying undeserved grace and kindness to others, including those who have committed wrongs against us, then we are guaranteed to earn this same kind of undeserved grace from above.
A person who concludes Yom Kippur with this message, a message of compassion and forgiveness, is a person who has internalized what the Torah calls “the Path of G-d,” the way that G-d treats the world. This person can rest assured that after Yom Kippur, he will be purer and his sins were forgiven.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.