Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, an intensely personal day of conscience and self-reflecting (The Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor, translated and commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren publishing, Jerusalem, p. x).
We fast. We pray. We seek forgiveness.
On this singular Day, Rabbi Sacks tells us, we see how insignificant we are. But we also realize that we are here because G-d wants us to be—and because there is work He wants us to do (ibid, xv).
What an extraordinary idea for Yom Kippur: G-d wants me here! G-d needs me!
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. According to its original design, it’s the one Day of the year when Judaism’s holiest person—the High Priest—enters the Holiest Place—the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem’s Temple. There, this holiest of persons pronounces the Holiest word—the Divine Name (ibid, xlvi).
With that pronouncement, the process of Atonement unfolds.
But now, there is no Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple was destroyed more than 1,900 years ago. Now, there is no Holy of Holies. There is no High Priest.
Nevertheless, despite the catastrophe of our Temple’s destruction (or, we might suggest, because of it), the Jewish people have “revolutionized the life of the spirit” (ibid, xlvii). Yom Kippur has been transformed. It has changed from a day “on which one man atoned for all”, to a day when each atones for each (ibid).
What an extraordinary idea: we can atone! We can be forgiven! We have the power to create for ourselves a clean slate!
This transformation from catastrophe to revolution is one reason Rabbi Sacks says “Jews have a genius for spiritual greatness” (ibid, lxxiii). This revolution, he suggests, encourages us to seek spiritual greatness. It teaches us that Yom Kippur can transform us: this holy day isn’t about, ‘will I live’. It’s about, “how will I live?” (ibid, lxxii).
This is the crucial question each of us must ask on Yom Kippur. It is the one question that opens the door of greatness to us. It reminds us that this Holy Day invites us to become better than we were—because we know we can be better (ibid, lxxiii).
We know we can be better because that ‘knowing’ comes from G-d (ibid).
Judaism is about transforming ourselves. It’s about preparing to improve. It’s about committing to improve.
To this end, Judaism teaches us to see ourselves and the world as “equally balanced between merit and guilt”, and that our next act “could tilt the balance” (ibid lxiii). Judaism, Rabbi Sacks suggests, lives in the space between our smallness and our potential for greatness (ibid, lxxiii). Judaism tells us that what we do --and how we live--depends upon us.
We have the potential to be great. This is core of Yom Kippur: greatness is before us; all we have to do is act.
I don’t know if I have captured the essence of this part of Rabbi Sack’s Yom Kippur commentary. Perhaps I misread—or overemphasize. You might want to check it out for yourself.
In fact, you might want to add this Mahzor to your library. Rabbi Sacks’ full commentary on Yom Kippur is excellent.
G’Mar Chatima Tova: may you be sealed (in the Book of Life) for good things.