When young students first arrived at the feet of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, the famous leader of 19th Century Polish Hasidism, Rabbi Bunim would first relate to them this story:
Rabbi Eizik, son of Rabbi Yekel of Cracow lived in poverty for many years. Though oppressive, it had never shaken his faith in God. One day, Rabbi Eizik dreamed someone bade him look for a treasure in Prague. The treasure was located under a bridge that leads to the king’s palace. Rabbi Eizik ignored the dream. However, after it recurred a third time, he prepared for the journey and set out for Prague.
Upon his arrival, Rabbi Eizik learned that the bridge was guarded day and night. He did not dare start digging for fear of his life. Nevertheless, he went to the bridge every morning and kept walking around it until evening. Finally, the captain of the guards, who had been watching him, asked in a kindly way whether he was looking for something or waiting for somebody.
Rabbi Eizik told the guard of the dream which had brought him there from a far away country. The captain began to laugh, “And so to please the dream, you poor fellow wore out your shoes to come here! As for having faith in dreams, if I had it, I should have had to get going when a dream once told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew—Eizik, son of Yekel, that was the name! Eizik, son of Yekel! I can just imagine what it would be like, how I should have to try every house over there, where one half of the Jews are named Eizik and the other Yekel!” And he laughed again.
Rabbi Eizik bowed, traveled home, dug up a valuable collection of the finest pearls from under his own stove, and built a House of Prayer which is called, “Reb Eizik Reb Yekel’s Shul.”
After telling this story, Rabbi Bunim used to add, “and make what it says your own: There is something you cannot find anywhere in the world…and there is, nevertheless, a place where you can find it.” (From Buber, “Hasidism and Modern Man” pp.162-163)
This story so beautifully captures the power of the relationship between a student and a rebbe. Here, these students have traveled far and wide to learn hidden secrets of the universe from a great Hasidic Master. What is the first thing he tells them? Go home. You are a seeker hoping to fill your treasure chest with gems of learning, wisdom, and understanding. Though the rebbe may be able to teach the rebbe’s students the tricks of the trade, the real work is best done elsewhere.
Our shul is full this evening as it was on Rosh Hashanah. We have begun the work of the season and are moving full speed ahead. By this point, some of us have spent nearly fifteen hours in this sanctuary. We have turned over 200 pages of the machzor in relative unison. Please don’t misunderstand me. This is important, sacred, and necessary service. However, this sanctuary is simply a bridge that leads to a King’s palace. The guilt we endeavor to relieve is nothing more than a curious palace guard. You can wear out your Yom Kippur sneakers here, but it means nothing unless, like Rabbi Eizik, son of Rabbi Yekel, you are willing to go home and dig.
The beginning of Psalm 34:15 reads, “ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע” or, “turn from evil.” This is the work of Yom Kippur. We want to do teshuvah, literally, “returning”. However, I would argue that we go about this the wrong way. We tend, as Rabbi Eizik did, to go back to the bridge over and over again. We think about our sins. We perseverate. The more our minds replay our transgressions, the more our hearts become heavy and depressed. Hiddushei HaRim, a book written by the first rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim, likens this to someone who is trying to sweep away mud. They push the mud this way. They push the mud that way. Still, they remain with their mud! To what benefit is this preoccupation with our sins? Why should we push mud when we could be uncovering and stringing pearls for the benefit of the Holy Blessed One? And so, says the Hasidic Master of Ger, we should not read, “ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע” or, “turn from evil” without understanding the next words in Psalm 34:15, “וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב”, “and do good.” Meaning, do not fixate on your missteps, but leave them behind and instead be a force for good. Therein lay the treasure.
For the next day we will sit in shul and beat our chests. Repeatedly, we will recite acrostic after acrostic. Aleph- Ashamnu. Bet-Bagadnu. Gimel-Gazalnu. And, על חטא שחטאנוּ לפניך בּ־– Aleph – ones. Bet – bli da’at. Gimel – galui. And so on. It is doubtful that any of us have come even close to transgressing even most of these sins. Yet we list them Aleph to Tav, A to Z, in an attempt to assuage our all-encompassing guilt. At the end of this most sacred day, we will, God-willing, walk away from here feeling good about the important work we have done. Well, I am here to let you in on a little secret. You may have done work, but the work is not done. Moreover, if you like how it feels to do this work, you can have this feeling every day. Because actually, every day is, or at least can be, Yom Kippur.
I was first introduced to this concept as I approached my wedding day. As Aviva and I met with our mesaderet kiddushin leading up to our wedding, she explained to us that one’s wedding day is like a yom kippur katan, a small day of atonement. The Talmud (Yevamot 63b) explains that on their wedding day, a couple receives atonement for all previous transgressions. In preparation for this forgiveness, the couple traditionally fasts from dawn until after their wedding ceremony. Similarly, they recite the vidui, the same confessional we recite today. When a pair enters the huppah, they recognize that the whole rest of their lives depends on the steps they will take forward together. Likewise, we must recognize on this Yom Kippur that it is the steps we take after we leave shul today that really matter.
After the High Holy Days, we exit our homes and dwell in Sukkot. Our Sukkot represent the homes we lived in after our exodus from Egypt on Passover. However, they also represent our ideal relationship with God. We dwell in Sukkot because we realize there is no daylight between the Holy Blessed One and ourselves. We have spent the season mending the rifts that we have created between ourselves and Hashem. By the time Shmini Atzeret rolls around, we can simply be ourselves and be near to each other. This journey from distance to nearness to God is, more or less, the same story we tell around our seder tables.
On the High Holy Days we rid the gunk from our hearts to reveal God’s presence within each of us. The Hasidic Master Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, was the successor to the Hidushei HaRim, who taught us earlier about the sweeping of mud back and forth. He taught that the proverbial “Book of Life” is, in fact, our own hearts. Each of us has the word “life” engraved on our hearts by our Creator. As time passes each year, that engraving becomes covered and more difficult to read. The work of the High Holy Days is to cleanse ourselves so that “life” can be re-inscribed on our hearts. (Days of Awe p. xi)
After the High Holy Days, our next holiday encounter is with the new month of Heshvan. Though our sages argue that this month is without celebration, it does provide us with an opportunity to continue the work of Yom Kippur. In the book of Bamidbar (28:15), we read that a sin offering was sacrificed on Rosh Hodesh. Therefore, some pious individuals mark the day before each Rosh Hodesh as a yom kippur katan. The concept of a yom kippur katan, a small day of atonement, is believed to have originated in the 16th Century in the mystical circles of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. It was meant to be a way of preparing oneself for the coming of a new month. Rosh Hodesh, is seen as an et ratzon, a time when the will of the Divine is uniquely tied to our own will. Similarly, these days are marked by fasting, confession, and charity.
Next comes Chanukah. I have taught here before that our sages saw the final day of Chanukah as an end to the High Holy Day season. That’s right, this season arguably spans a minimum of four months. The eighth day of Chanukah is also a Yom Kippur. Our Torah reading for that day announces, “zot hanukat hamizbayakh.” “This is the dedication of the altar.” (Num. 7:54) Because of this, we refer to the last day of Chanukah as, “zot Chanukah.” Our sages make a connection between the word “zot” meaning, “this,” in the Torah reading for that day and verse 9 in Chapter 27 of the prophet Isaiah which reads, “b’zot yekhupar avon ya’akov…” Or, “With this the sins of Jacob are purged.” By lighting lights on Chanukah, we can also dig for treasure buried within ourselves.
Sages and scholars have been fascinated with the connections between Yom Kippur and Purim for ages. In the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 3:10), Esther entered to stand before the king and entreat him for the lives of the people of Israel, just as the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The Zohar, reads the biblical name for today, “Yom HaKippurim,” meaning “The day of atonements” as “Yom K’Purim” solidifying Yom Kippur as a day that is k’Purim, or “like Purim.” (Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 20 and 21)
Every spring, within weeks (and sometimes days) of celebrating our Passover festival, we read the Torah portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. By this point you should not be surprised that our Torah readings for Yom Kippur day come from the very same parshiyot. As we clean our homes and prepare our hearts in preparation for Pesach, we read about the preparation of the mishkan and the cleansing of our people’s sins on Yom Kippur.
Pesach marks a halfway point between one Rosh Hashanah and the next. In practice, it acts like another season of atonement, of reconnection to the Holy Blessed One. On Pesach, we remove the leavening from our midst to reveal the ways our own leavening, our arrogance, has distanced us from The Divine.
From Passover, we count seven weeks until we arrive at Shavuot. On Shavuot, we celebrate God’s giving the Tablets of the Law to Moses as a symbol of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish People. As beautiful as this moment is in our history, we need only to flip a few pages to be reminded that we grew impatient waiting for God to carve the Tablets of the Law, so we built a Golden Calf. Upon seeing our makeshift deity, Moses smashed those original tablets that were written by God’s own hands. Our tradition teaches that the first Tablets were given on Shavuot, the 6th of Sivan. The golden calf was created forty days after. The next day, the 17th of Tammuz, Moses descended Mount Sinai. Upon seeing the people’s rebellion, he smashed the Tablets. On Rosh Hodesh Elul, Moses re-ascended Mount Sinai. Moses again took forty days atop the mountain. When did he descend with the second set of Tablets? It was today, the 10th of Tishrei, on Yom Kippur.
In his foreword to S.Y. Agnon’s, “Days of Awe,” my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, wrote:
By the time of the second tablets, God had learned a lesson about dealing with these humans. ‘Carve yourself two tablets of stone,’ He said to Moses, ‘and I shall write upon them’ (Ex. 34:1). This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, God does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions those second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with God. We carve our second tablets, remaking the infinite divine demand into one with which we are prepared to live…It is not only God who makes major decisions in this season of the year. God may decide whether we will live, but we have to decide how we will live the life we are given. (pp. xv-xvi)
We travel this path from the High Holy Days to Chanukah, to Purim, to Pesach, to Shavuot, and then around again. Each stop along this cycle serves to recalibrate us, to redirect us, toward the work of Yom Kippur.
In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we are to “Repent one day before your death.” (Avot 2:10) Commenting upon the Mishnah, the 15th Century Italian Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura says, “Since a person does not know when he will die, he should repent today, lest he will die tomorrow.” In practice, Yom Kippur serves as a confrontation with our inevitable mortality. As it will be when we experience our eventual death, on Yom Kippur we separate from worldly pleasures. We do not eat or drink, we dress in shrouds, and we refrain from washing and from intercourse. We recognize the fine line we walk each day between life and death. We acknowledge a reality that we must contemplate. However, as Rabbi Ovadia of Bertenura teaches us, this work is to be done every day.
Our sages likened the experience of sleep to a fraction of the experience of death. This is why we arise each day and say “Modeh Ani,” thank you, Blessed One for restoring my soul to me, for giving me another chance, because of your abundant mercy, to do my best. We even recognize the ways in which God allows for renewal each day. Every morning we bless, “hamehadesh b’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh beresheet,” or, “The One who renews creation each day, because of God’s own goodness.” The world is recreated each day. So too, we are recreated each day. Each day gives us the opportunity to do the work of Yom Kippur.
Elbert Hubbard was an American author and philosopher famous for saying, “Do not take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive.” He also wrote, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continuously fearing you will make one.” As well as, “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed a hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.” Though he considered himself an anarchist, all I can think from his quotes is that this is a guy who truly understood Yom Kippur.
Here we sit, ten days into 5780, with the words of Kol Nidre ringing in our ears. The power of Kol Nidre is that the annulment of vows unties knots. It relieves us of our meaningless commitments and leaves us free to engage in the real work of living. It draws us briefly to the bridge and then sends us home better prepared to recognize the ethereal treasures that have been there all along. Kol Nidre is a starting line of a leisurely eleven and a half month-long track and each lap is another Yom Kippur.
On one of my trips to Israel this year I had the honor of meeting author and liturgist, Alden Solovy. In 2012, Alden wrote the following poem for Yom Kippur:
Cry No More
Cry no more for the sins of the past.
Rejoice in your repentance and your return.
For this is the day that G-d made
To lift you up from your sorrow and shame,
To deliver you to the gates of righteousness.
Love is the crown of your life
And wisdom the rock on which you stand.
Charity is your staff
And justice your shield.
Your deeds declare your kindness
And your works declare your devotion.
Cry no more for your fears and your dread.
Rejoice in your blessings and your healing.
For this is the day that G-d made
To raise your countenance and hope,
To deliver you to the gates of holiness.
Here we stand, as Alden Solovy wrote, at the gates of righteousness and holiness. Tonight we will go home and tomorrow we will return to these gates. May our liturgy inspire awe within us and may our service move us toward return. But let us remember, tomorrow night we get to go home again and continue our journey. Because every day is Yom Kippur.