Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the Jewish year and it is also the strangest day, because it seems to negate all that makes us human. For this one day we step out of ourselves and become something else, something other. We are no longer part of this world as we know it. Denying our bodies food, drink, sex and any possible physical pleasure, we act as if the normal impulses that make us human no longer exist. It is almost as if we have slipped out of life into immortality.
Perhaps that is what the sages were trying to tell us when they created the legend explaining why Yom Kippur is the only time when we recite aloud the line "Blessed is the name of His honorable majesty forever and ever" - baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed - in the recitation of the Shema. Usually it is said in a whisper. That line calls for an explanation because it is a rabbinic addition and not part of the biblical text of the Shema.
The legend is that when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Tablets of the Covenant, he overheard the angels praising God with those words. When he returned to earth he instructed the Israelites concerning all the commandments he had received and he also taught them that sentence of praise. But he said to them, "All the mitzvot I have given you I received openly from the Torah, but this verse is something that I overheard the angels say when they praise the Holy One. I stole it from them, therefore say it in a whisper."
It may be likened to someone who stole a jewel and gave it to his daughter, telling her, "All that I have given you, you may wear in public. But this jewel is stolen. Wear it only indoors!" The midrash then continues, "Why, then, is it said aloud on Yom Kippur? Because then they are like angels, wearing white, not eating or drinking; nor do they have any sins or transgressions, for the Holy One has forgiven all their transgressions" (Deuteronomy Rabba, ed. S. Lieberman, 68-69).
INDEED, USUALLY we are not angels. Far from it. We have human needs and desires. We have impulses that can lead us to sin and transgression, as well as the ability to channel them and live a good life. We sin, all of us, in word, thought and deed. We are indeed human. The beauty of Judaism is that it recognizes our physical needs and our impulses. It does not seek to deny them, but rather to regulate them.
Judaism is far from an ascetic religion. The denial of the body is not praised or required. The pleasure of eating and drinking is acknowledged and is part of religious celebrations, but the act of eating is also controlled through the laws of kashrut. Sexual desires are considered normal and positive, but they too are controlled by the laws of marriage and family relations.
So too the desire for wealth. We are not commanded to live lives of poverty, but we are told to share what we have with others through acts of tzedaka and to acquire our wealth honestly. And we know we are not without sin, which is why we are given the opportunity of confession and teshuva, repentance.
On this one day, however, we are given a taste of eternity, an experience of something other-worldly. We are like the angels, or as close to it as human beings can get. When all physical needs are denied and canceled, we have a day when we can concentrate on other things, when we can pray, think, contemplate and lift ourselves to a higher level of consciousness than normal.
We begin with listening to the words of Kol Nidre, which conclude with the message: "I have forgiven as you have asked," the assurance that if we have properly repented during the last week, our sins have been blotted out. The burden of guilt has been lifted. Yes, all during the day we continue to confess our sins, but that serves to make us aware of what we should avoid from now on and help us to plan a purer life. We hear the words of Isaiah in the magnificent haftara that teaches us that all these actions, even fasting, are worthless if they do not lead to a life of help to others.
And at the closing of the day, we experience what can only be called an epiphany when we move beyond consciousness of hunger into a feeling of renewed strength as we proclaim our most sacred beliefs, repeating the Shema and the assertion that "the Lord is God" followed by that magnificent blast of the shofar - the shofar that proclaims liberty, liberty from human oppression, liberty from all that shackles the mind and the body. At that moment we may not become angels, but we become something no less exalted - human beings.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.