Yom Kippur: To dream harder

Why is the denial of food so important? One of the great teachers of our people, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1748-1825), the Rebbe of Apt provided a significant answer to that question.

October 2, 2014 21:49
3 minute read.
Yom Kippur

Men pray next to a plastic pool containing fish as they perform the ‘Tashlich’ ritual in Bnei Brak, in this photo from 2013, ahead of Yom Kippur.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In former times, no hours were more extraordinary in our forefathers’ lives than those just before the onset of the awesome day, Yom Kippur. These comprised moments of such intense religious upheaval in the human soul, that it was as if the world had become a different planet, one in which all normal human needs and worries fell away. The solemnity of these awe-inspiring hours was hard to survive.

Testimonies of these moments have reached us through the writings of our forefathers and by oral transmission.

What was our forefathers’ secret to reaching this state of mind and heart? The venerable Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine before the Jewish state was established, mystic, and one of the most original thinkers ever, draws attention to a strange phrase at the end of the Al Chet confessional prayer, which is said on this awesome day: “My God, before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed, it is as if I had not been formed.” Rabbi Kook explains that the first part of this confession is indeed easy to understand.

“Before I was formed I was obviously of no worth since I did not yet exist! The world was not yet in need of me. But once created, why should man say that his existence is as if he had not been formed? Is not the fact that he now exists proof that his life is of great significance? What, then, is the meaning of this strange confession that his existence is as if he does not exist? Rabbi Kook goes on to explain the import of these words in a simple but penetrating way: “When I was not yet formed, I was obviously of no worth, since the fact that I did not yet exist meant that there was no need for me to exist. But now that I have been formed, it means there must be a reason for my being. There must be a mission that I am to fulfill, something which only I am able to accomplish. Consequently, my existence is of crucial importance not just for myself but for all of mankind and the entire universe.”

This awesome thought is the focal point of Yom Kippur. Am I worthy to have a claim on life? Or have I been born but lost my right to live? This is by far the most important question for man to ask.

The trembling of the earlier generations on Erev Yom Kippur was indeed that of great fear – not fear of punishment or death, but of not rising to the challenge of living in God’s presence and fulfilling one’s destiny! Our forefathers understood these hours to be decisive. These were hours of great spiritual embarrassment.

Yom Kippur is also a day on which we are prohibited to eat, but we need to understand the significance of this prohibition.

Why is the denial of food so important? One of the great teachers of our people, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1748-1825), the Rebbe of Apt, also known as the Ohev Yisrael (lover of all Jews), provided a significant answer to that question.

On Yom Kippur he would ask, “Who needs to eat?” This is a day when man surpasses himself, when he outdoes himself, when man lives, at least for a few hours, on a plane where the question of whether he is worthy to have been created must be answered with a dazzling YES. During these hours the Jew lives on the plane of angels, and angels do not eat.

The great tragedy of our generation is that for many of us, even as we enter Yom Kippur and observe its laws, there is no longer a feeling of fear or trembling before God. We have lost the art of grasping the greatness of the day. It becomes more and more difficult each year. Even when we fast and say the prayers, we are not haunted by the question of having been formed versus not having been formed. In secular society there is no longer a feeling of shame regarding what we do with our lives. Everything is fine. We have been deadened by daily needs, occupations and pleasures. We are “allrightniks” – neither contrite nor embarrassed.

But with a little more thought, we Jews can realize that we are privileged to have one day in the year to be jealous of our forefathers’ religious authenticity. We should wish to give millions of dollars for the ability to participate in an hour of such genuine religious experience as they had on Erev Yom Kippur.

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