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The Sanctity of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is truly a remarkable day. Classified as one of our special days, a Yom Tov, designed to cause us think about a specific concept in our relationship with God. Pesach centers on understanding God’s intervention to bring the descendants of Ya’akov out of slavery from Egypt. Shavuot celebrates and focuses on the concept that God relates to man via His system of mitzvot. Each Yom Tov in turn celebrates a specific idea of how God relates to man.

Yom Kippur’s special designation deals with creating or restoring the relationship itself between man and God. It is the day set aside each year when every member of Israel must undergo self-scrutiny concerning his or her personal relationship with God. Of course, one need not and should not wait until Yom Kippur to be introspective and make the appropriate changes in behavior. But, God in His infinite wisdom established a day when all Jewish people around the world are required to examine their internal makeup, acknowledge their misdeeds and correct their inappropriate behaviors. On Yom Kippur, the entire nation of Israel is engaged in a process of restoring and shoring up its national covenant with God. As is true for any group, it is only as strong as its weakest link. So as individuals we are commanded to repent and confess on Yom Kippur so that the aggregate result is an uplifting of the entire nation. 

The very fact that Hashem affords us this yearly opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Him is remarkable. Were strict justice, מידת הדין, to be invoked by God, who could stand? The Almighty, our judge, however, invokes מידת רחמים, mercy, providing us with multiple opportunities to improve. This is truly a concept we should rejoice over, be grateful about, and take full advantage of. In fact we recite the blessing of “Shehechiyanu” at the onset of Yom Kippur. The very nature of Yom Kippur, its holiness and specialness, is tied up with this idea. In other words, not being involved in teshuva, “returning and restoring our relationship with God” on Yom Kippur would be like not eating matzah on Pesach. Just like the special status of Pesach cannot be conceived apart from the abstention of bread and other leavened products and the positive command to eat matzah the first night of Pesach, so too Yom Kippur cannot be conceived without the notion of abstention from 5 specific physical enjoyments and the involvement in the mitzvah of confessing our misdeeds with sincere resolve to improve our behavior in the coming year. 

Proof that this idea forms the central theme of Yom Kippur can be seen from the placement of the confessional, the וידוי, within the prayer service. When we say our private confession on Yom Kippur, it is done at the end of the silent prayer. Our personal and private prayer always serves to create the proper framework in our relationship to God. We recognize our utter dependence on God’s kindness for our continued existence. In that state of humility, we then each confess our misdeeds. Here the confessional is placed immediately at the conclusion of the individual silent prayer to demonstrate one aspect of repentance. This same structure is to be followed anytime we repent during the year.

However, when the leader of the prayers, the chazzan, repeats the prayer out loud on Yom Kippur, he is offering one prayer on behalf of the entire congregation. Listening attentively to each word and answering “amen” at the end of each blessing is crucial to the efficacy and fulfillment of this communal prayer. It is this form of participation that joins each individual to this communal prayer. 

As we follow along, we note that in the repetition, the chazzan puts the congregational confession smack-dab in the middle of the prayer. This 4th or middle blessing of the holiday prayer, known as קדושת היום, “kedushat hayom,” (specialness of the day), always contains a reference to the uniqueness of the Yom Tov. It then concludes with specific petitions to God that are related to the sanctity of that particular day. On Yom Kippur the chazzan leads the congregation in the confessional as part and parcel of the very “kedushat hayom” blessing. They are inseparable. 

The very sanctity of Yom Kippur is inextricably tied to teshuvah, becoming a returnee to God. This second feature of the Yom Kippur confession, that it forms the essence of the holiday, is thus manifest. As a nation we pray and request on this day of Yom Kippur, the day God set aside for us to focus on returning to Him, that He accepts our admission of quilt and grants us opportunities where we can demonstrate the sincerity of our Yom Kippur confession. כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני ה’ תטהרו 

May Hashem seal all of us in His Book of Life for a successful new year of growth in our relationship with Him.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan