Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the Jewish year and it is also the strangest – because it seems to negate all that makes us human.
For this one day we step out of ourselves and become something else, something otherworldly. We are no longer part of this world as we know it. Denying our bodies food, drink, sex and any other 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 physical life into immortality.
Perhaps that is what the Sages were trying to tell us when they said that Yom Kippur is the only time we say aloud the line, “Blessed is the name of His honorable majesty forever and ever (baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed) in the recitation of the Shema.
Where did “baruch shem k’vod malchuto” originate? When Moses went up to heaven to receive the Tablets of the Covenant, he overheard the angels praising God with these words. When he returned to earth, he instructed the Jews concerning all the commandments he had received and he also taught them this sentence of praise.
But he said to them, “All the Torah and mitzvot I have given you I received openly from God, 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 can 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 continues, “Why, then, is it said aloud on Yom Kippur? Because then we are like angels, wearing white, not eating or drinking; nor do we have any sins or transgressions, for the Holy One Blessed Be He has forgiven all our transgressions” (Deuteronomy, Midrash Rabbah).
Usually, of course, we are not angels. Far from it. We have human needs and desires. We have impulses that can lead us into sin and transgression (but we also have the ability to channel them in a positive manner 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 and control them.
Judaism is not about self-denial. The denial of the body is not praised or required. The pleasure of eating and drinking is acknowledged and is part of religious celebrations through seudat mitzvah, Shabbat and Yom Tov feasts. The act of eating is, however, controlled and regulated by the halachot of kashrut. Sexual desires are considered normal and positive (procreation is even the first of the 613 commandments) but they are controlled by the halachot 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 tzedakah and to acquire our wealth honestly.
We know we are not without sin, which is why we are given the mitzvah and opportunity of confession and teshuvah, repentance. On Yom Kippur, however, we are given a taste of eternity, an experience of something otherworldly. We are like the angels, or as close to angels as human beings can get. When all physical needs are denied and canceled, we have a day during which we can concentrate on other matters – when we pray, think, contemplate and lift ourselves to a higher level of holiness and consciousness than normal.
Yom Kippur is the day of the soul. It is the one unique day in the year when we proclaim: “I’m a soul man.”
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 to help us plan a purer and holier life. We hear the words of Isaiah in the magnificent haftara of Yom Kippur that teaches us that all these actions, even fasting, are worthless if they do not lead to a life of help and caring for others.
And at the close of Yom Kippur, we experience an incredible inner joy when we move beyond consciousness of hunger into a feeling of renewed strength as we proclaim our most sacred beliefs.
We say the Shema, and the assertion that “The Lord is God” followed by the magnificent blast of the shofar – the shofar that proclaims liberty from sin and transgression, 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 – real menschen.
Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.