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In essence, Yom Kippur is time out. We stop the world; we stop everything. On Yom Kippur we stop all the normal activities, almost as if existence itself were suspended. I am reminded of a poem by Friedrich RÃ¼ckert set to music by Gustav Mahler:
"I have become a stranger to the world where once I used to waste a lot of time; it has so long now heard no thing of me. It may well think that I have died! Indeed, I am not much concerned whether it believes me dead. I cannot even contradict it, for really, I am dead to the world. I have renounced the worldly bustle and live in peace at a quiet place. I live alone in this, my heaven, in my love, in my songs."
To be totally disconnected from the world, to forget all its cares and all its woes - that is often a consummation devoutly to be wished, but only in order to return to it with greater strength.
We need perspective. We are so enmeshed in ourselves and in our world that we cannot see the forest for the trees. To rise above it all on one day - perhaps to begin looking at the world and at our own lives as an angel would, from above, gives us the ability to return to life and be renewed.
At Kol Nidre we dress ourselves in white. All during the day we deny ourselves the basic physical needs of life, food, drink, sexual relations, as if to say that we do not need all this. We have entered another world entirely. The midrash says that on Yom Kippur we are as the angels, not mere flesh and blood.
On Yom Kippur we are more than human - we are angelic. The midrash describes the human being as a combination of the animal and the divine - the physical side of human life and the spiritual side. On Yom Kippur we go as far as we can to eliminate the animal side - our physical needs - in order to concentrate on our higher nature and to strengthen it for the future.
This does not mean that Judaism posits the denial of our physical needs as the goal to which we should aspire. We never consider it evil. We only feel that it should be put under control and not allowed to dominate or to lead to excess. It is interesting, for example, that Judaism never developed either celibacy or monasticism as mitzvot. The closest we come to having monks is the nazir - and all he denies himself is wine and haircuts. I'm sure many a monk would exchange his vows for those - and even the nazir was frowned upon by some rabbinic authorities. As for celibacy, it was always considered a requirement for rabbis to be married.
The idea of someone cloistering himself away from society to live a contemplative life was foreign to us. The closest we came to that was the Essenes, or the Dead Sea sect - and they were married although they separated themselves from what they considered to be a corrupt society. Hillel, who was a Pharisee and not an Essene, taught: Do not separate yourself from the community. No monkish cells and no ivory towers for us.
And yet on Yom Kippur we take time out. We deny our physical needs. We stop doing the things that make human life and civilization possible. We deny all bodily pleasures. On the one hand this is a way of self-punishment to show our contrition for the wrongs we have committed and thus achieve atonement, but on the other we do so to elevate ourselves and experience a new sense of holiness.
When Ne'ila, the closing service, arrives, there is a special feeling of elevation that comes to one who has done a proper Yom Kippur. There is an exhaustion similar to that which runners and athletes experience when they are truly exhausted - a second wind that is different and more exhilarating. After a full day of prayer and contemplation, of inwardness, of separation from daily affairs, one stands for hours at Ne'ila and feels exalted at its melodies and then its affirmation of faith. It is truly a different day, a different existence, a different experience - as close to immortality as one can get in this world.
The midrash speaks about this as a time of re-creation - not recreation. After Yom Kippur one should feel as if one had been created anew: The Holy One said to them, since you came before Me for judgment and emerged successfully I look upon you as if you had been created anew (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana 4:8).
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.