One of the most difficult aspects of the Jewish holidays is getting into the appropriate mood. Achieving the right mood is crucial to getting the most out of any occasion and appreciating what the moment is all about. But exactly how do we achieve this?
The Sages suggest a number of useful techniques. One is Hachana Lemitzva - preparing for the mitzva - possibly through meditation or silence, as we might do before prayer; or perhaps through the physical set-up of the mitzva, like cleaning before Pessah or cooking for Shabbat.
Another technique is role-playing - getting into character by dressing a particular way, or surrounding ourselves with certain sights and sounds to create a backdrop for the holiday stage. This might include dressing in special clothing for Shabbat and yomtov, or using special dishes. I can still envision the one-week-a-year Pessah glasses that we used in our home when growing up. Or perhaps it's the eating of the matza and maror, as the slaves did, or moving into a cramped little succa for a week, to simulate our tenuous desert experience.
But how do we get into the Yom Kippur mood? This is a crucial moment of the year, when our very lives hang in the balance. How do we psych ourselves up to present the most potent, powerful and persuasive prayers we can muster, in order to save our souls and be granted another year of blessed life?
Yom Kippur actually comes ready-made with its own unique, built-in mood-setting apparatus, ingeniously crafted to prepare us for repentance. And it begins with the yahrzeit candle.
The flame of a candle represents the human soul - the neshama. The flame continually moves upwards, toward Heaven, just as the soul struggles to reconnect Heavenwards with its Creator. The flame is flickering and fragile, like life itself. At times it seems to be on the verge of extinguishment, but then it can regenerate itself and burn stronger, brighter, able even to light other candles. The flame's essential purpose is to dispel the darkness and enable us to see the way, just as the soul shows the body in what direction to go, how to act, and what its true mission in life is. So a candle is a powerful symbol for us.
Though we traditionally light a ner neshama in memory of our loved ones each time we say Yizkor - on the last day of Pessah, Shavuot and Succot, and during Kol Nidre - the original custom is to light these candles on Yom Kippur. The other holidays are more or less an add-on.
But - hold on to your kippa - I want to tell you that there is another custom, where each person on Yom Kippur lights a ner neshama not for a deceased relative or departed loved one, but for himself, or herself. That's right! We light, as it were, our own yahrzeit candle.
The reason for doing so is clear: Nothing helps us focus on our own life more than death - particularly our own death. Knowing that life is fleeting and fragile and that no one lasts forever is a sobering but motivating thought. It forces us to confront our own mortality and ask the questions that really matter: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this one, brief life which God gave me? What is real and what is a facade? What is valuable and what is meaningless? Alas, we often grasp the meaning and preciousness of life only when it is slipping away.
THE RABBIS tell us that one of the primary acts that evokes a sense of teshuva (repentance) is the conscious admission to oneself that any given day can be the day of your death. "Repent one day before you die," Rabbi Eliezer told his students. "But how do we know when that day will be?" they asked. And so he replied: "Approach each day as if it could be your last." This indeed is what we do when we light that special candle and stare deeply into its flames - we watch our own neshama flickering, and we contemplate the essential values of life.
Virtually all of the customs and rituals that surround this holy day are designed to impart to us this message.
â€¢ Before Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness from everyone we know. This custom resembles that of a person who fears his life is slipping away and wants to make amends, to clear his conscience before he dies. He returns items he has borrowed and apologizes for whatever he might have said or done to offend others, so that he doesn't leave this world with any bad "vibes."
â€¢ On the eve of the holy day, we participate in kapparot, originally performed with a chicken. The chicken is swung around the head three times as we symbolically transfer our sins to it while reciting a blessing. One minute you are holding a live, squawking bird, and the next minute it is dead - slaughtered. And one thought is central in your gut: How short life can be; how quick the end can come - for the chicken, and for you.
â€¢ Before yomtov, men immerse in a mikve. Why now? It has partly to do with taking on added purity in an attempt to convince God that we are spiritually clean. But this act of dipping into the mikve is also literally a tahara (purification) for us - a ritual washing of the body like that which takes place before one's funeral.
â€¢ The appeal to the Heavenly Court during the Kol Nidre prayer to be released from unfulfilled vows is the same plea that a person would make in his last days or hours on Earth. And the white kittel (robe) we wear throughout the 25 hours of Yom Kippur resembles the tachrichim (burial shrouds) that we will someday wear on our final journey to the Afterlife.
THE MOST repeated prayer of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the Vidui - the confessional. We perform this confession several times throughout the year, but the two most critical recitations are on Yom Kippur and just before we die. The reason this is such an important component of repentance is because it is the only time that we may truly drop the pretenses and facades we maintain during our life and tell the truth as we face death.
Because death is so final, so intractable, the prospect of never being able to right our wrongs is the one thing that can jolt our sense of priorities back into line.
This is what we contemplate when we light the yahrzeit candle, looking into the flickering flame of our soul, and pondering for whom the candle burns.
The writer is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.