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Yom Kippur Day 5780

A few years ago in one of my Yom Kippur sermons, I told you the story of the rabbi who said he didn’t fast on Yom Kippur and the 9th of Av – you remember don’t you! Here it is:

His closest disciples once approached a great Chassidic Rebbe, known to be a holy man. They asked him how many days in the week he was actually fasting. After all such a holy man would fast frequently. The Rebbe smiled, and told them that he never fasted! Flabbergasted by his response, they asked him what he did on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish Year, the Day of Atonement, on which the Jew is forbidden to eat and drink.

The Rebbe smiled: ‘I do not fast on Yom Kippur’. ‘You don’t?’ said the disciples aghast. ‘No’, said the Rebbe. ‘You see, I just have no time to eat on Yom Kippur. It is the only day of the year on which we are able to do complete teshuva, repentance. So how has one time to eat!?’

Astonished by this reply, the disciples asked him what their teacher did on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples. Did Jewish Law not demand that every Jew fast on that day?. ‘Ah’ , said the Rebbe. ‘You do not understand. On the Ninth of Av, I just cannot eat. On that day I lose all appetite. So many tragedies occurred on this day. It is not that I fast, I simply cannot eat!’

This is a great story if we want to be free of rigid religious behaviouralism – in other words, doing things because we have to. Wouldn’t it be better if my emotions took me to the conclusion that I should do a specific mitzvah. I mourn so much that of course I will fast. I am deep in repentance so I have no time to eat. Well I suppose this is not going to be for everyone – and it may actually miss the point, to be honest – because the Torah tells us specifically to do things that afflict the physical.

Let me explain. On Yom Kippur we fast. Now the Torah doesn’t actually explicitly tell us to fast. It rather uses the term ‘V-initem’ – which means really one should reduce the physical, or even afflict the physical. One of the ways we understand doing this of course is to fast – but there are other ways as well. So for instance we wear non leisure shoes – this is considered on a par with fasting as an affliction of the physical. It is interesting also that we are told to afflict the ‘nefesh’. This is a term which translates as the soul – but is usually understood as the physical aspects of life, the actual source of existence. The word for the inner soul, is neshama. So on Yom Kippur we need to take active steps to afflict and minimise our physical existence. And why all this minimising the physical –  the Torah states – because it is Yom Kippurim – a day of atonement for each individual.

So it seems that it is not enough to just feel the depth of the day, be in prayer and then by default fast through the day. One must want to fast – that is what we are being asked to do. Being aware of what we desist from on Yom Kippur is so important. But there is one step more here – actively desisting on Yom Kippur is what we do in order to receive atonement. So what is the connection between fasting on Yom Kippur and receiving atonement – how does this actually work?

One way of putting it is to say that the source in us for the possibility of sin, is understood to be the mixing together of the body and the soul. That is how we live – we try constantly to balance our inner values and inner beliefs of the soul, with the world in which we live and breathe. Sometimes these two domains are in battle with each other. Sometimes they work in harmony. It would seem destructive if one takes over completely. If the soul takes over, someone would live the life of a hermit, constantly separated from human contact and often in fasting and repression. We don’t necessarily think of this as healthy or right. But if the physical life we live takes over too, leaving no time for contemplation and meditation this also is dangerous.

So, I suppose, Yom Kippur is a day when we tip the balance. We stack things in favour of the Neshama, the soul. We unbalance things for one day, so that we can understand what it may be like to live almost in an angelic way, to live as a soul.

But maybe this neshama, this inner soul, without the mixing in with the physical requirements of living in the world, is actually the core of our existence. In the creation story, God does create us as physical beings. We are told that He uses the dust of the earth to form us. We are of the earth, earthly, physical beings. We cannot shake that off. We cannot reject that reality. But God then proceeds to blow into this first physical being the ‘nishmat chayim’ – the soul of life. And so the inner soul is something of God, sent into this mute, stationary, physical prototype, in order to animate it with life.

So how does this all help? How does revealing our neshama so to speak work on Yom Kippur. What does it do?

Well the answer to these questions could come from the answer to another question that a number of members have asked me. That’s a very Jewish thing I suppose – answer a question with another question!

So, many have asked me – what is the point of doing repentance for a specific sin if you may well do the sin again. Well OK, if you know you are going to do a specific act again. If you have all the intention in the world to repeat it, then yes, teshuva, going through a process of repentance does not really work. Absolutely not. But if I don’t know, I worry I may repeat it, I hope I won’t, but I just don’t know. Then teshuva is considered acceptable even if the sin is repeated before next Yom Kippur. The process of repentance in the Jewish religion, in Jewish Law therefore lives within real human existence. Being made of mixtures of different pulls, that sometimes lead us to sin, and sometimes away from sin, getting things wrong is an inevitable part of our existence. It is just who we are. And what this means everyone, is that atonement is needed because we are human. This is not only about guilt and shame. Yes, doing a specific act may make us feel guilty or filled with shame. But if we stop doing that act, we do not necessarily need to take the shame along with us – and I know that that is easy to say, but hard to do. But there is something here that is more than shame for specific actions – it is about accepting our humanity and accepting what we can do with our humanity, as I expressed last night.

There is a Talmudic phrase that I love. We have all heard of the Shema – where we say ‘And you should love the Lord with all your heart’. The word ‘your heart’ is written ‘Levav’cha’ with two times the letter Bet. This is fodder for the Rabbis of the Talmud to read something in – and they do. They uncover for us a sort of duality – that we have two pulls. A human, often mixed up pull that may get things right and may get things wrong. And a Godly pull, pulling us higher to a place where we dream of always getting it right. Where we will never harm anyone, never hurt anyone, make the right moral decisions even if it affects our worldly existence. And so the Talmud says that one should teach themselves to say ‘Woe to me from my Creator; Woe to me from my human instinct’. In other words, human existence can mean feeling trapped, between wanting to please the Creator, and wanting to independently decide what is right for us as individuals. This dialectic, this pendulum is understood here to be existence itself.

And so when we show ourselves, and God, once a year on Yom Kippur that we always want to get it right. That we hate getting it wrong, and that we want to aspire to greater morality and holiness; that is the time for atonement. When we unravel and unwind our physical existence from our soul through fasting, hard is it is to do, we then merit atonement, the erasing of all for which we ask forgiveness. And this standing as a soul in front of God, even in the face of awareness of our fallibilities throughout the rest of the year as human beings – this can bring with it joy. The joy of acceptance of our fallibility. The sense of freedom from fearing ‘getting it wrong’. That at the end of a sorry, a confession, an apology – is the chance to start again and try once again to get it right.