Parashat Yom Kippur: Let your soul sing

Too many people perceive Yom Kippur as a day of grief, guilt and pain likely to leave a stale smell even on their souls.

September 27, 2006 10:45
4 minute read.
yom kippur 88

yom kippur 88. (photo credit: )


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Too many people perceive Yom Kippur as a day of grief, guilt and pain likely to leave a stale smell even on their souls. And why not? After all, the Torah uses the phrase "and you shall afflict your souls" five times in regard to this day, four times in Leviticus and once in Numbers. Furthermore, the Mishna in Yoma, Chapter 8, then enumerates five specific afflictions that characterize Yom Kippur: no eating, drinking, anointing oneself, bathing, sexual relations or wearing leather shoes, which only intensifies the impression of Yom Kippur as a bleak, gloomy day. In this light, how do we reconcile the last Mishna in Ta'anit, which declares that there were no happier days for the Children of Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth of Av (Tu B'Av), when the young women would dance in the vineyards and propose marriage to the young men? The halachic proof that Yom Kippur is truly a day of rejoicing like all other festivals appears in the third chapter of Tractate Moed Katan, where it is ruled that Yom Kippur (together with the other "pilgrim" festivals) cancels the seven-day mourning period for a deceased relative, since "the public rejoicing of the holiday pushes aside the private sadness of the mourner." And indeed the Bible describes Yom Kippur in glorious terms: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; before God shall you be purified of all your sins" (Lev: 16:30). Now, if Yom Kippur is essentially a happy day - a clean new slate for a clean new year - we must re-examine the biblical phrase "and you shall afflict your souls" - especially the word v'initem, which literally means to afflict. Why so strong and negative a word for such a life-affirming day? The root of the word v'initem is ayin, nun, heh, which actually means to answer or respond. But the unique thing about the word is that its meaning depends on what one is responding to. For example, the first chapter in Exodus describes the cruel relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and in this context the word means affliction. But in the context of bringing the first fruits (Deut 26:5) the same root structure (v'anita) means "to declare in happiness," or even "to sing out." Similarly, in Tractate Pesahim (36a), one rabbi says lechem oni, the biblical term for matza, means "bread of affliction," while a second says it means "bread upon which many things were sung" (Lechem sh'onim alav devarim harbei). So what is the real meaning of v'initem? In the context of this ambiguity, we can understand one of the most difficult verses in the Bible. When Moses descends Mt. Sinai to find a nation worshipping the Golden Calf, Joshua - who had been waiting at the foot of the mountain - hears a strange sound upon nearing the encampment and asks Moses about it. Moses responds: "It's not the anut [song of victory] nor is it the anut [dirge] of the defeated. What I hear is just anut [song]" (Exodus 32:18). I think that when Moses describes the sound in terms of what it isn't - neither victory nor dirge - it's as if he's saying that there is an element of both, expressing the tragic condition of the Jews at that moment. Moses understands that the reason they made the Golden Calf had less to do with a desire to worship other gods than it had to do with their overwhelming fear that they'd been abandoned. Thus the song they sing is empty, with their laughter rooted in tears, their songs masking sobs; the sounds which emerged were not that different from the hysterical laughter that sometimes escapes from someone at times of tragedy, or the hollow tinkling laughter at a cocktail party from which one desperately wants to escape. Yom Kippur is very similar, but from an opposite perspective. The tenth of Tishrei marks the day on which we were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. It's the day when God gave Moses the second tablets and gave Israel a second chance. On Yom Kippur we may be sad when we remember our misdeeds and failed opportunities, but it's a grief which leads to the joys of forgiveness, rebirth and harmony. Just listen well to the high and even flighty cadence of the confessional, after which the entire congregation literally shouts in song: "And for all of these, O Lord our God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us." If the golden calf is the anut of song-sob, Yom Kippur is the anut of sob-song. There is also more truth to the Yom Kippur experience. I once heard a story about someone who asked his rebbe how one can expect Divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur if following the fast nothing usually changes; our sinning continues as usual! Without saying a word, the rebbe took his disciple to the window where a small child was learning to walk. The child got up, took a few paces, and then fell down, repeating this process endlessly. The rebbe then said to his student. "But eventually the child will walk - and so will we." Yom Kippur is a day for believing in ourselves, in our spiritual capacities. We fast not in order to afflict ourselves, but rather to demonstrate to God as well as to ourselves our spiritual dimensions. We spend the 25 hours of Yom Kippur removed from the world of physicality in order to rejoice in our spirituality. From this point of view v'initem et nafshoteichem may well be translated as "you must cause your souls to sing." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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