The Greatest Gift of All1
“I have forgiven, because of your words.”2 Three times in rapid
succession we shout this line, precisely as we usher in the holiest day of
the year. The phrase seems perfectly appropriate for our needs – just the
message we want to hear. But is it not a bit presumptuous? Are we perhaps
jumping the gun, projecting ahead of ourselves what we hope to secure in a
period of intense avodah? Shouldn’t these words come at the end of Yom
Kippur, after a full day of fasting, teshuvah, vidui, and davening?)
Moreover, upon reflection the message conveyed by the phrase is not as
positive as we think. ? Consider the words that follow immediately. “But as
I live … all the men who have seen My glory…and have tested Me these ten
times and have not heeded my voice, if they will see the Land that I have
sworn to give their forefathers – and all who anger Me shall not see
it.”3 Hashem’s forgiveness was not a free pass. It came at a
huge price! In essence, Hashem told those who had accepted the report of
the spies that they were indeed forgiven, but they were going to have to pay
a stiff penalty, one that would last many years.
Is this the Divine answer we wish to hear on Yom Kippur? Don’t we really
want to hear, “You are forgiven, the slate has been wiped clean, and the
forecast for the coming year is sunny and bright?” We would like to hear an
unequivocal, “Surely!” in response to our appeal for all things good for
ourselves and our families. It is curious that lead off our Yom Kipur
davening with an apparent, “You are forgiven - but with reservations.”
Yet another familiar bit of phraseology seems to lose its luster when we
”Rabbi Akiva said, ‘How fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom do you
purify yourselves, and who purifies you? – your Father in
Heaven!’”4 What exactly does it tell us? Who else would we
think could purify us?
We will make headway with these problems only if we break out of our usual
thought patterns. We might start by recognizing that the chief function of
Yom Kippur is not forgiving sin, or granting atonement, or sundry other ways
of describing a slate wiped clean.
Why should Hashem announce a yearly amnesty, available to all fortunate
enough to be Jewish? At all other points in the year, we deny that Hashem
simply excuses wrongdoing – “Whoever claims that Hashem disregards
wrongdoing, his own life shall be disregarded!”5 Does He break
His rules on Yom Kippur?
Let’s go back to the aftermath of the sending of the spies, and the people’s
rejection of the Land. HKBH’s first reaction was, “I will smite them with a
plague and annihilate them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful
nation than they.”6 In other words, Hashem was prepared to sever
the special relationship with Klal Yisrael. He would abandon them, cast them
off. His plans for history would continue through a new people, to be built
from Moshe’s progeny.
Moshe’s tefilos succeeded in aborting that plan; Hashem relented, and said,
“I have forgiven, because of your words.” Hashem was ready to take Klal
Yisrael back in, so to speak. Their sin would not be overlooked. It would be
dealt with – but they would not be left standing outside in the spiritual
cold. They would not suffer the fate they feared the most – utter rejection
by their Creator.
What a relief for them to hear that they were no longer locked out of His
presence! It is just as much a relief for us to draw on that response in the
wilderness. We understand that it represented a pledge by Hashem never to
fully abandon us, not then and not at any time in the future. Any set of
circumstances, however unattractive, can be bearable to a believing Jew.
Only one represents the ultimate horror – complete banishment from His
Presence. We begin Yom Kipur by drawing on that episode over three thousand
years ago. We remind ourselves that we stand inside, in His Presence, rather
than outside. He has not and will not abandon us.
It is the perfect beginning – not end – of our Yom Kippur. With this
reassurance, we can begin the avodah of the holiest day of the year. We can
take advantage of its gift, and leave a day later on a more elevated plane.
In beginning that avodah, the words of Rabbi Akiva become important. Through
our soul-searching in Elul, and as the Yemai HaDin draw closer, our malaise
increases. Discomfort morphs into real fear. The greatest fear for many is
that we have botched things so badly, that we - consciously or
subconsciously – conclude that we cannot speak openly to G-d. From where
will we find the chutzpah to stand before Him and plead for mercy once
again? Sullied as we are by sin, caked in the mud of wrongdoing from head
to toe, can we really walk into a Yom Kippur and function properly?
Rabbi Akiva provides the antidote to our paralysis. Before Whom do we seek
forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Before our Father! Our Father will let us in
the front door, even caked in mud! He will accept us with our inadequacies,
just as he did in the infancy of our peoplehood. This is what fathers do,
when their children stand at the doorstep, with only their eyes indicating
that they seek reconciliation.
Reconciliation, then, is the magic word to describe the power of Yom Kippur.
But this doesn’t sound entirely accurate either. The Torah calls it a day
of atonement, not a day of reconciliation. Aren’t they very different? In
truth, however, reconciliation and atonement are not distant relatives, but
Tanna D’vei Eliyahu7 tells us that Hashem’s cleansing of Jewish
sins gives Him great joy. Think of a king who becomes embroiled in a
bitter dispute with his son. There is pain on both sides, although that of
the son does not compare to that of the father. If father and son make up,
their former bitterness helps propel their love to something stronger than
what it was before their pained separation.
It is good for both of them to be together again. It is even better for the
father than for the son. That is just part of what it is to bear children,
to be a parent. Hashem reacts the same way, as it were. He savors the
reconstituted bond between Himself and His people. He acts to bolster and
support it. To make it work well, He throws in the ultimate deal-sweetener.
He generously offers an amnesty to His beloved children, complete with
atonement and taharah. Atonement is not the essence of the day, but its
byproduct. Reconciliation remains the central theme; atonement follows in
Only a parent acts with such unstinting generosity. This is precisely Rabbi
Akiva’s point. Before whom do we purify ourselves? Before our Father! A
father who forgives is not the same as a friend or neighbor who forgives.
In the case of our Heavenly Father, the welcome-back of reconciliation
brings with it the bonus of taharah.
But how do we get ourselves to show up at the door? Is simply living
through the day of Yom Kippur sufficient? To some degree, it is. If we
understand what it should mean, though, we can take far more away from the day.
Here, too, the words of Rabbi Akiva allude to the fuller answer. Before
Whom do we purify ourselves? Before our Heavenly Father. Let us recall Who
our Father is. Our puny minds are capable of grasping nothing of His
essence. The smallness we feel can be painful. We might think of shrinking
away, of drawing back from the Power of His Presence.
A better strategy would be to seek refuge, to find a place of safety. For
believing Jews, not only is there such a place, but we are all familiar with
its address. We escape not by running away, but by rushing headlong
directly into Him. We submerge our smallness into His greatness. We negate
our own importance, and reach out to cling to Him. By negating ourselves,
by being mevatel our sense of self, He moves within range. Bitul is the
key to achieving deveikus. (The Torah alludes to this in its description
of the Yom Kippur avodah in the Kodesh HaKodoshim. “No person shall be in
the Tent of Meeting when he comes to provide atonement in the
Sanctuary.”8 At this moment of encounter with the Divine, one
ceases to be a person. He must translate his inadequacy and smallness into a
self-negation that leads directly to deveikus with Hashem. He must leave the
limitations of his humanity behind, and
The thought is not a new one. Maharal9 uses it to explain how
Yom Kippur works. It is a day that the souls of Jews find their way back to
their Source. Through bitul, the soul merges back into Hashem.10
Within Hashem, sin has no place. It is not that sin is left at the door.
Rather, the neshamah is cleansed of the sin that adheres to it by now
clinging to Something that simply does not allow sin to exist.
Interestingly, there is a parallel to this in an activity far more common
than the once-yearly avodah of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Akiva goes on to add
another image. “Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so does HKBH purify
Yisrael.” Think of what we are doing and saying when we immerse in a mikveh.
We submerge ourselves – completely and absolutely – in the water, becoming
part of it. No small part of ourself remains outside. Before we enter, we
remove any substances that interpose between our bodies and the water.
Through the Maharal, we understand this idea. A mikveh purifies those
submerged in it. On Yom Kippur, Hashem helps us submerge ourselves, lose
our egos, nullify our sense of self through complete union with Him.
A jewel from the past: Great rebbes used to speak on erev Yom Kippur about
mesiras nefesh, about giving our lives for Hashem. Why? What does dying
for Kiddush Hashem have to do with Yom Kippur? They would plead with the
tzibbur: “Why should we have to live though all sorts of consequences and
punishment for our misdeeds? Visualize yourself in your heart of hearts as
if you were giving your life for Hashem, and that will substitute for all
sorts of unpleasantness!”
Mesiras nefesh is nothing more than a demonstration of bitul. It is a
statement that one’s own needs, interests, goals, desires – none of them
matter, relative to what Hashem wants. It is the submerging of the most
powerful instinct – survival – into the reality of Hashem. When a person
achieves such bitul, there is no further purpose in punishing the sinner for
his sins. By becoming one with Hashem, the sinner has disappeared
completely and naturally – at that point, he ceases to be a man. His face
shines with the radiance of the angels, but mortal man he is no longer.
What an outstanding opportunity Yom Kippur offers us – the ability to become
nothing! Arriving there, we find not absence, but the ultimate Presence.
We return to G-d in the mutual joy of reconciliation. Of the myriad Divine
gifts of which we are conscious, it may be the greatest gift of all.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom vol.2, pgs. 171-172
2. Bamidbar 14:20
3. Bamidbar 14:22-23
4. Yoma 85B
5. Bava Kamma 50A
6. Bamidbar 14:12
7. Chapter 1
8. Vayikra 16:17
9. Derush l’Shabbos Teshuva, pg. 83-85. In the Beis Hamikdosh, this was demonstrated by taking the blood of the goat designated by lot “for Hashem,” and bringing it into the Kodesh HaKodoshim. The blood represents the Jewish neshamah; bringing it inside makes the statement that the immediate source from which that neshamah is taken, and to which it now returns, is Hashem Himself.
10. Curiously, the etymology of “atonement” supports this approach. The word comes to us through the Middle Engish “atonen”, which in turn comes from “at one.”
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org