As we approach Yom Kippur, we recognize that it is unquestionably one of the most important days of the year. And yet, in many ways, it is a mystery. While one might assumedly categorize it as a day of suffering and sadness, Chazal refer to Yom Kippur as a spiritually uplifting day of atonement and rebirth (Taanis 4:8). There is even an element of the day that is associated with the happiness of Purim (Yom “Ki”-Purim, a day like Purim). At the same time, though, it is a fast day. We normally characterize fast days as times of mourning and sadness, such as Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’Av. How is Yom Kippur different, and what is the nature of this day?
Soul Questions: What Are We?
Arguably the most important concept in life, though often misunderstood, is the nature of the soul. Most people believe that they “have” a soul, some spiritual essence they possess within themselves. However, the deeper Jewish sources reveal a profound spiritual secret: you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. In other words, the soul is not an aspect of your self, or some spiritual component of your being; it is your very self. You are a soul, a consciousness, a spiritual being. When you say “I”, you are referring to your soul, your inner sense of self. You have a body, emotions, and an intellect, all different aspects and expressions of your soul. But you are a soul, a neshama, an infinitely expansive consciousness.
The Birth of Finitude
A soul is angelic, perfect, pure, and transcendent. This is what Chazal refer to as your “fetal self”, when you were still in the womb, just before entering this physical world (Niddah 30b). However, the moment one enters this physical world, the infinite expansiveness of the soul is confined within the physical body. The body is the container of the soul, but it is also the soul’s vehicle and tool, allowing the soul to manifest its will in this world. This is our mission in life. We enter this world with an undeveloped vehicle, our limited body. The soul, our existential self, is already perfect, but we don’t yet have access to the fullness of our true self. As we journey through life, we tap into greater and greater aspects of our soul, our self, and we must then manifest them into the world through our physical bodies. In doing so, we uplift our physical vessels, and enable them to tap into greater and greater aspects of our true self. This is the beautiful cycle of life, the endless expansion and expression of self into this physical world.
Our Inner Struggle
While this perspective is both powerful and fundamental, its implementation is elusive, and perhaps humanity’s most central struggle. Many people believe that they are a body, a physical, finite being. Having forgotten our true selves, we are born with the illusory belief that we are only that which we can see. We look in the mirror, seeing only flesh and bone, and we believe that this is all that we are.
However, this is merely our starting point. The turning point in life is the moment we realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing. We are not physical beings attempting to have a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings trying to uplift our physical experience. This is the central theme of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur: Flying With Angels
Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we completely free ourselves of our physical limitations, embracing our angelic self. This day embodies true teshuva, when we return to our ultimate root, to our spiritual, perfect self. Chazal characterize Yom Kippur as the one day of the year when we have the ability to become a malach (angel). On this day, our lower self and physical urges are powerless, they cannot bring us down. They formulate this idea through the following gematria: “Ha’Satan”- the evil inclination, has the numerical value of 364. There are 365 days in the year, but the Satan only has power on 364 of those days. Yom Kippur is the one day where the Satan, the Yetzer Hara, has no power over you. On this day, you can completely transcend and experience angelic perfection (Yoma 20a).
Why Do We Fast?
There is a paradoxical relationship between the body and the soul:
- Your soul, which is your “self”, is transcendent, infinite, and purely spiritual. You cannot see, smell, or touch the consciousness, the mind. You will never see someone else’s inner world.
- The body, however, is finite, limited, and physical. Your soul will never die, but your body will eventually age and wither.
If the soul and body are complete opposites, how do they manage to coexist as one? One would expect them to repel each other, like two opposite sides of a magnet.
This is the powerful purpose of food. There needs to be something to keep your soul attached to your body, some kind of “glue”. Eating food generates the energy which keeps your neshama connected to your body. That is why the lack of eating has the opposite effect. What happens when you don’t eat? You become faint. What happens if you continue to fast? You will pass out. And if you still don’t eat, your soul will leave your body and you will die. Eating maintains the connection between your soul and your body; it is what keeps you alive.
This is the depth behind the phrase “u’mafli la’asos- Who performs wonders”, that we recite in Asher Yatzar (the blessing we recite after using the bathroom). What “wonder” are we referring to? The Beis Yosef suggests that it is the wonderous paradox that our soul, infinitely transcendent, can remain connected to our bodies, a physical, finite vessel. We mention this specifically after using the bathroom because we have just filtered out the unneeded parts of what we ate or drank, the very means of forging the connection between body and soul.
We can now understand the concept of fasting, especially on the day of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we attempt to live as malachim, completely transcending the physical world. We therefore fast, allowing our soul to somewhat transcend our body, enabling us to experience one day of living in an angelic state.
This principle sheds light on all the issurim of Yom Kippur. We don’t engage in the physical world because Yom Kippur is a day of transcending the physical aspects of human experience.
The Opportunity of Yom Kippur
This is the unique opportunity that Yom Kippur presents: to transcend, to experience the infinite. Unlike other fast days, it is not a day of suffering and mourning, but one of spiritual transcendence. As the famous quote goes: On Tisha B’Av, who can eat, on Yom Kippur, who needs to?” This is why the Rambam (Hilchos Shevisas He’Asor 1:4) states that on Yom Kippur we “rest” from eating. This is not a day of prohibition and suffering, it is one of completely embracing the spiritual, tapping into our absolute root, our truest sense of self.
Preparation for the Year to Come
The transcendent experience of Yom Kippur lays the foundation for the rest of the year. While the physical can be destructive if misused, the ideal is not to completely transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. Our goal as humans is not to escape the physical, but to use it as a means of connecting to the transcendent.
This is the key behind the process we undertake throughout the Yamim Noraim. We first experience Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, and then Yom Kippur, a developmental process of elevating ourselves higher and higher above the physical world and deeper and deeper into the spiritual world. Only once we establish this transcendent root can we then re-immerse ourselves into the physical world, but this time on an entirely new level. Sukkos, which immediately follows Yom Kippur, embodies this lesson in embracing the physical. Our root must be transcendent, grounded firmly in the spiritual, and then atop that foundation we can descend into the physical and use it in a transcendent way.
May we be inspired to fully experience our angelic selves this Yom Kippur, and then infuse the totality of our spiritual acquisition into our physical life, elevating our actions and intentions as we move this physical world towards its ultimate spiritual root.